Understanding Nutrition Labels to Make Smart Choices

Many of us are trying to make healthier choices when grocery shopping these days. But doing so can be difficult when you’re trying to figure out what the nutrients and percentages on nutrition labels mean — and what they really mean for you.

Understanding nutrition labels can be a challenge for even the most advanced grocery shopper. We asked a Lahey dietitian to offer guidance on where to look and what to pay attention to when deciphering the ever-daunting nutrition label.

Understanding Nutrition Labels

First, it helps to understand the main categories, or macronutrients, listed on the label. These are the fats, carbohydrates and proteins in the individual food item. On the label, the total fat reading simply relays the total grams of fat in one serving of the food. Then, it breaks down how much of each type of fat — polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and trans fats — is in the food.

Likewise, the carbohydrates section of the label lists the total amount of carbs, in grams, in one serving. This number includes how much dietary fiber and sugar the food contains, and those are indented beneath the carbohydrate total.

Nutrition labels also tell you how many calories and vitamins and how much cholesterol and sodium is in a particular food. Each item also has a percent daily value. This can be a sign that something is way too high in a certain ingredient, like sodium or saturated fat. But for many people, the percent daily value may not apply.

“I find that percent daily value is not always helpful because it is based on a 2,000-calorie diet, and not everyone needs that many calories,” said Katherine Carithers, MHA, RD, CSO, CNSC, a clinical nutrition manager at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. “Most women, for example, should consume less than 2,000 calories per day, so it’s best to look at the grams rather than the percent daily value.”

Beneath the values table on the nutrition label is a list of all the ingredients in the product. Ingredients are listed in descending order, meaning that whatever ingredient is listed first is the biggest component. So, pasta, for example, should have some sort of flour as the first ingredient.

What Should You Focus On?

You may be thinking, “OK, I know what’s on the label, but how does that apply to me? What makes a healthy food choice?”

That answer isn’t simple. Part of it depends on what your health goals are. If you have high blood pressure, you should pay close attention to sodium. If you’re trying to lose weight, you may care more about calories.

But no matter your goals, Carithers says everyone should start with the serving size.

“If you don’t know what the serving size is, none of the other information is going to matter,” she said. “A serving size of cereal is often measured in cups, not by how much you pour into a bowl.”

Despite the different advice and nutrition tips you may hear, there’s no hard and fast rule for deciding what’s healthy. That depends on your health needs and preferences.

“You need to know why you care about the ingredients,” Carithers said. “For someone with celiac [disease] or sensitivity to artificial sweeteners, knowing the names of gluten or chemical sweeteners is important, and the ingredients section of the label needs close attention.”

She does offer some general nutrition tips, though, that everyone should follow:

  • Check labels carefully to avoid trans fats. Just because the label says there aren’t any trans fats doesn’t mean that’s always the case. Anything containing partially hydrogenated oils contains some trans fat, but the trans fat content doesn’t need to be listed on the label if one serving has less than half a gram.
  • Pack on the protein. Foods higher in protein will be more filling. If you’re looking for a satiating snack, pick up something with 10 grams of protein or more.
  • Limit added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of sugar per day for women and 36 grams for men.
  • Watch the saturated fat content. Carithers says that between 11 and 13 grams of saturated fat per day is a good limit, so avoid foods that contain more than that in one serving.

Carithers says it’s more important to know why you’re choosing a certain food, rather than understanding all the math on a label. Are you choosing a food because it’s convenient? Is there maybe a whole-food alternative you can choose?

“People should eat more whole foods — foods that don’t have labels — like fruits and vegetables and lean proteins,” she said. “That’s more of a natural way to eat rather than trying to decide which granola bar is the healthiest.”

If you’re still struggling to understand nutrition labels or if you have definite dietary restrictions, Carithers suggests meeting with a Registered Dietitian. A professional can walk you through the parts of the labels that most apply to you and the best choices you can make for your health needs and goals.


*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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