How to Read Food Labels for Healthy Eating

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023

In today's fast-paced world, it can be challenging to make informed choices about the food you eat. But learning how to read food labels is a powerful tool for adopting healthy eating habits.

A food label has important information about serving size, total calories, sodium levels, and other key nutrients in food. Understanding what information food labels contain helps you make informed decisions when it comes to your diet.1

Be aware of the serving size

The first step in understanding food labels is to check the serving size. This information is located at the top of the label. It is given in measurement units – for instance, cups (followed by the metric equivalent). Keep in mind that the serving size is the amount a person would typically eat, but it is not a recommendation to eat that amount.1,2

No matter what, eat what feels right for you. Check in with your hunger levels. Is the serving size too big for how hungry you are? Or is it not enough? Tune into your hunger cues so that you can know how much to eat and what is right for you. But note that if you eat more or less than the serving size, you will need to calculate the corresponding differences in the other values listed on the label.2

Check the total calories

The total number of calories listed on a food label refers to the calories per serving. Calories give your body energy. Consider this information in relation to your daily calorie needs. The number of calories your body needs each day depends on your:1,2

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Height and weight
  • Metabolism
  • Activity level

If you do not know how many calories you should be eating to maintain a healthy weight, ask your doctor or check out myplate.gov/myplate-plan. You also may want to consult a nutritionist or dietitian for a more personalized meal plan that works for your health needs.1

Take a look at the nutrients

The nutrients section on a food label lists the amounts of macronutrients, micronutrients, and other notable nutrients in the food. These include things like:1,2

  • Total fat
  • Total carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Sodium
  • Cholesterol
  • Fiber
  • Added sugars

Macronutrients

Fats, carbohydrates (carbs), and proteins are known as macronutrients. Pay attention to the amounts listed on the label. Aim for balanced proportions of these nutrients in your overall daily intake.1,2

Choose healthy fats such as avocados or nuts as opposed to highly processed foods that contain saturated fat. Opt for complex, high-fiber carbs like whole grains instead of refined grains like white bread and white pasta.1,2

Micronutrients

Vitamins and minerals are known as micronutrients. Many Americans do not get enough of essential vitamins and minerals. So, nutrition experts urge people to choose nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins to get what they need.1,2

Fiber

Fiber is a crucial part of a healthy digestive system. It keeps your bowel movements regular and can help regulate your blood sugar levels. Foods that have a lot of fiber will keep you feeling fuller longer.1,2

Be aware that not all nutrients are “healthy.” There are some that can do harm when eaten in large quantities. These include sodium, added sugars, and saturated fat. Too much of these nutrients can lead to obesity and other health problems.1,2

Watch out for added sugars

Added sugars can be hidden in many processed foods – from soft drinks to cereals. These sugars are added during the processing of certain foods. On a nutrition label, added sugars may be listed under various names such as corn syrup, fructose, or sucrose. They provide little to no nutritional value, yet they add to your calorie intake.1

If you want to cut down on calories, look for products whose labels say no (or zero) added sugars. Better yet, opt for natural alternatives like fresh fruits.1

Understand the percent daily value

The percent daily value (%DV) on a nutrition label lists how much a certain nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a total daily diet. For example, if 1 serving of food has 850 mg of sodium, that is 37 percent of the daily value of sodium you should get in a day.1

A good rule of thumb is to break down %DV this way:1

  • For healthier, nutrient-dense foods like fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium, the higher %DV the better.
  • For less healthy, nutrient-poor foods like saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars, aim for a lower %DV.

Analyzing the ingredient list

The ingredient list shows you exactly what the food is made of. Ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with those that are in the greatest amounts.3

Foods with shorter ingredient lists usually have fewer artificial additives, preservatives, or sodium. It can be helpful to learn about common unhealthy ingredients such as trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup so you can recognize them on a label.3

Make an informed decision

Knowing how to read food labels allows you to make informed choices for your diet. By understanding the different parts of nutrition labels, you can better assess the nutritional value of the foods you eat. Empower yourself with this knowledge to support your journey toward healthy eating habits.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.