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How to Understand Food Labels in 11 Steps

by Sammy Nickalls

Food labels: black and white boxes and text that only scientists can understand. Right?

Wrong! Food labels aren’t as complicated as they seem. Here are eleven steps to navigate them like a pro to keep yourself healthy and well!

food labels

How to Navigate Food Labels

1. Serving Size / Servings per Container

The serving size is one of the most important parts when reading food labels. Companies like to make the serving size as small as realistically possible so that a quick glance at the food label might make the food seem healthier. For example, you might look at a candy bar and say, “Hey, 200 calories isn’t so bad”—but really, that 200 calories apply to half the bar and not the whole thing (and really, who only eats half a candy bar?).

If you don’t know how much food the nutrition label is describing, you can’t use it to your advantage.

Related: 4 Diet Food Marketing Tricks Designed to Keep You Fat

2. Ingredients

Another important thing to check out before you eat that food is the ingredients. Remember, less is more, and simple is always best. If there are thirty or so complicated-looking ingredients that you’ve never heard of, odds are that there’s a ton of processed junk that your body doesn’t need.

It’s important to know what your food is made of—and you don’t want to put something in your body that sounds like it should be in a beaker in science class.

3. Calories

This is the part of food labels that gets the most attention, simply because people tend to think that the lower this number, the better. There’s a bit of wisdom to that; of course, you don’t want to eat a snack that’s 1000 calories. However, just because a snack is 100 calories, doesn’t mean it’s automatically “healthy.”

How many of those calories are from fat (listed next to the “calorie” section)? Does the snack have any nutrients? Is it processed? There are so many other things to consider other than calorie count.

Related: 15 Unhealthiest Foods on the Planet

4. Total Fat

Most people assume that simply because there is little-to-no fat, the food is healthy. Not necessarily—often, when a food is labeled as “low-fat,” it’s really high in sugars.

Plus, there are lots of foods that are high in healthy fats (such as avocado). However, keep in mind the “saturated facts” section—these are the unhealthy fats that you want to avoid at all costs.

5. Cholesterol

Cholesterol is something you want to keep low, in order to keep your own body’s “bad” cholesterol low as well. Keep it under 300mg a day.

6. Sodium

Sodium, essentially salt, is not something you want a ton of, either. Packaged and processed foods are often quite high in sodium. Try to make this meet your daily value. According to the FDA, your daily value is less than 2400mg a day. To give you an idea, one package of Ramen noodles contains two-thirds that amount of sodium alone.

Related: How to Make Healthy Food Choices

7. Carbohydrates

Many condemn carbohydrates to the fitness version of hell, but that’s not necessarily so. Just like fat, your body needs carbohydrates to survive. There are plenty of “good carbs” that are filled with fiber, helping these carbs to get slowly absorbed into our system without a blood sugar spike.

However, in grocery stores today, many foods and snacks are jam-packed with “bad carbs” that are refined and cause blood sugar spikes. Try to meet your daily value of carbohydrates (300g), but not by eating refined carbs like white bread; instead, stick with carbs found in nature, like sweet potatoes, beans, or old-fashioned oats.

8. Dietary Fiber

This section can tell you whether that carb is a good carb or a bad carb. For example, a portion of food might have 20g of carbs, but 19g of fiber—making it only have one gram of “active” (bad) carbs.

Fiber is essential in that it prevents those nasty blood sugar spikes, can help fend off disease and can help you feel full, which stops you from overeating later in the day. Try to meet your dietary fiber requirement of at least 25g to 35g a day.

Related: 5 Healthy Food Substitutions for Fat Loss

9. Sugars

Generally speaking, when reading a food label, you want to keep your sugar count low. There are some foods, like many fruits, that have sugar naturally; however, many processed foods may be jam-packed with sugar, which does nasty stuff to your body.

That being said, be wary of “sugar-free” options, as they’re often filled with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, which can be even worse for you.

10. Protein

Protein is essential for many bodily functions, such as immune function, pH balance, structure and movement, and nutrient transportation. There have been many rumors going around whether you should eat more or less protein for weight loss or maintenance, but no matter the rumors, it’s vital to have a sufficient amount of protein in your system for your body to be able to perform, especially if you regularly work out.

You can get a solid amount of protein from lean meats, eggs, yogurt, milk, nuts, and seeds.

Related: 7 Surprising Facts about Protein

11. Vitamins

If you’re eating healthy (i.e. eating your five recommended daily servings of veggies!), you’ll likely get approximately enough nutrients and vitamins on your own. However, many don’t pass that test, so you might be concerned about the daily amount of vitamins you take in.

Remember, it’s important to get your daily recommended value of vitamins, but don’t think taking a supplement containing 1000+% your daily value is a good idea! Try to get your vitamins through your food, and keep the number at 100%. If you’re concerned about your vitamin intake, try juicing; it’s a great way to sneak in ample amounts of those nutrients your body needs!

The Takeaway

Food labels can seem intimidating at first glance, but don’t sweat. By taking a quick glance at these ten aspects of food labels, you can figure out whether that food will help or hurt your healthy eating plan.


sammy nickallsSammy Nickalls is the Content Manager at She is an avid health nut and a lover of all things avocado. Follow her on Twitter or Pinterest.

Photo by felixtsao

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