Tips to Read Food Labels Wisely

By Nicole German (RD, LD)

2761-451029_nutrition__trans_fat_panel.jpgDo you ever feel lost when it comes to choosing foods in the grocery store? Or, do you stare at food packages trying to decide if it is a healthy choice or not?

There are so many things to think about: grams of fat, grams of fiber, milligrams of cholesterol, grams of sugar, and more.

What to Look For

First, start at the top of the nutrition facts label, and read to the bottom. Check how many servings are in the entire container and what the portion size is for one serving. This will help you determine how many calories are in the entire package as well.

Next, check the calories and fat. Pay attention to make sure the product has 0 grams of trans fat. Then check the ingredient list to make sure you don’t find any hydrogenated oils to be sure there is absolutely no trans fat in the product.

Sodium and cholesterol are next. We want to try to keep the sodium as low as possible. Excessive sodium is anything that has more than 600 milligrams per serving. I would argue it is still too much sodium if it has more than 300 or 400 milligrams per serving. For cholesterol, you want to keep your daily intake below 200 milligrams.

The carbohydrate section on the food label is going to vary depending on what type of food you are looking at. A general rule is that every 15 grams of carbohydrates equals one carbohydrate/grain serving. If you are selecting a grainy or starchy product, try to choose the item that has at least 2 grams of fiber per serving. Check the sugar to make sure it is as low as possible (below 5 grams per serving). The only exception is dairy products and whole fruits which naturally contain sugar.

You do not necessarily need to check the protein content unless you are trying to increase or decrease the protein in your diet. Quickly glance at the percentage of your daily intake for your major vitamins and minerals listed below.

Lastly, the ingredient list on the label is important. Ingredients are listed by weight from greatest to least. If sugar is your first ingredient, the food is probably not a good choice.

Practice reading labels every time you go to the grocery store and you will educate yourself and get better at your label reading skills!


  1. Shellie

    Just an FYI, if a product lists Trans fat on the label and says 0 grams, that means it HAS trans fat! If a product truly has no trans fat, then it won’t even be listed on the label.

  2. Dr Tom Halton

    Great post!
    Many of my weight loss clients have no idea of what to look for in a food label when I first meet them. Although it takes a bit of deciphering, most of the pertinent information about the food is present on the label.

    If they added a section under carbs for “added sugars”, that would be a major improvement. Including naturally occuring sugars like lactose (milk sugar) is really confusing to people who are limiting sugar intake.

    Dr. Tom Halton

  3. Diet Plan Guide

    Thanks for the helpful tips! I always think that two of the most important things to look at when reading food labels are unsaturated fats or trans fats and sugar. It really helps when you also provide the quantity of each ingredient as reference.

  4. Health Coaching

    Good article!! I think you’re right about reading the food labels wisely because its great to know what we are eating for and what can we benefit on it. I wish more people knew about this information.

  5. Creative Bioscience

    Great tips! I know I always have a hard time determining whether or not what I’m putting in my basket is actually healthy or it’s just one of those products that trick you into thinking that by using certain buzz words.

  6. Spectra

    I always check the calories/serving and number of servings per container first. Next, I look at sugar. I honestly think excess sugar is worse for you in the long run than a little bit of extra sodium. Although, to be fair, I don’t eat a lot of foods that do have labels on them to begin with, so I don’t get as much sodium as someone who does eat boxed cereal for breakfast, canned soups or frozen entrees for lunch, and/or a restaurant entree for dinner.

  7. Bonnie

    Check out calorieking(dot)com. It gives the nutrition info on a lot of foods, and for things like produce you can ask it to calculate for relative size or weight in grams or ounces.

  8. O.

    Thanks for the info Nicole. I always say that every packaged food comes with an “instruction manual”.

    The only thing I hate are foods that list freaky measurements(like 2/3 cup) as the portion size because then I have to go find the special spoon or cup.

    I also hate measuring non packaged food such as apples because the sources I use will say something like “a small apple has 80 calories”. What is a “small” apple, and exactly how much product makes up 80 calories?