How to read a food label

Please note, this content and images are sourced from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration site or the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing site.

Most products you can buy at the supermarket will have a food label on them. Sometimes all the numbers, tables and lists can appear confusing and overwhelming, and so you just buy something that sounds 'healthy' in the title - like 'Fat-free Yoghurt' - without looking for potentially hidden sugars, food additives and nutritional value. It's important to make informed, educated decisions about the products we choose to buy for ourselves, our spouses and our kids so we know what we are putting in our bodies.

Don't be fooled by sexy labels - learn how to make a good judgement about food products by reading our step-by-step guide for a typical food label below.

Step 1: Start with the serving size

The first place to start when you look at the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Serving sizes are standardised to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams.

The size of the serving on the food package influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package. Then ask yourself, "How many servings am I consuming"? (e.g., 1/2 serving, 1 serving, or more) In the sample label, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals one cup. If you ate the whole package, you would eat two cups. That doubles the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the %Daily Values as shown in the sample label.

Step 2: Check the caloric content

Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food. Many Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for a number of nutrients. The calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight (i.e., gain, lose, or maintain.)

Remember: the number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you actually eat (your portion amount).

In the example, there are 250 calories in one serving of this macaroni and cheese. How many calories from fat are there in ONE serving? Answer: 110 calories, which means almost half the calories in a single serving come from fat. What if you ate the whole package content? Then, you would consume two servings or 500 calories, and 220 would come from fat.

General Guide to Calories

40 Calories are low
100 Calories is moderate
400 Calories or more is high

The General Guide to Calories provides a general reference for calories when you look at a Nutrition Facts label. This guide is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Eating too many calories per day is linked to overweight and obesity.

Step 3: Check out the nutrient information panel - Limit these nutrients

Look at the top of the nutrient section in the sample label. It shows you some key nutrients that impact on your health and separates them into two main groups:

The nutrients listed first and identified in yellow are the ones people generally eat in adequate amounts, or even too much. Limit these nutrients. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure.

Important: Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.

Step 4: Check out the nutrient information panel - Get enough of these nutrients

Most people don't get enough dietary fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets. They are identified in blue. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. For example, getting enough calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis, a condition that results in brittle bones as one ages (see calcium section below). Eating a diet high in dietary fibre promotes healthy bowel function. Additionally, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain dietary fibre, particularly soluble fibre, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Remember: You can use the Nutrition Facts label not only to help limit those nutrients you want to cut back on but also to increase those nutrients you need to consume in greater amounts.

Step 5: See the footnote

  • Ingredients List: All ingredients in a food product must be listed on the label in order from largest to smallest by weight.

    You can use this to spot foods that might be high in saturated fat, added salt or added sugars because these ingredients are listed in the top three. Also look out for other words on the ingredients list that flag ingredients high in saturated fat added salt or added sugars.

    To lose weight we need to eat and drink fewer kilojoules than our bodies use. The kilojoules can come from one source or a combination of fat, sugars, protein, carbohydrate or alcohol. It’s the overall kilojoule total that matters for weight loss, rather than the source of the kilojoules. However, if fat or sugars are high on the list of ingredients, it is a good reason to check how high the kilojoules are in the amount you would eat.

  • Percentage Daily Intake Some labels also list nutrients in a serve of the product as a percentage of daily nutrient intake. This can be used to compare the nutrients in one serve of the food with what an ‘average adult’ needs. This information can give you a rough guide, but your individual needs, particularly kilojoules, could be quite different.

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