Small Steps: Label Reading

by in Healthy Tips, Small Steps, January 22, 2011

nutrition label

Not in the habit of label reading? Don’t know where to start? The New Year is a good time to work on it — here are some first steps.

The Benefits
Reading labels is important so you can know what you’re putting in your body and feeding your family.  But the nutrition facts panel has so much information that decoding it all can be a lot to take in. Instead of trying to figure everything out at once, start with one or two items. It takes time to initially read the labels, but once you find what you’re looking for, it automatically becomes part of your routine.

The Goal
Before hitting the market, whip out a few labels from your pantry and read what’s on them. Be aware that there’s a list of the nutrients (like calories and fat) and a list of ingredients. Both come in handy when making choices.

Next, look at the serving size and servings per container (or package). It’s important to understand that the information on the label is for one serving and not necessarily the entire package (unless the label indicates that it’s a single serve package). Start by checking how many servings are in a package—oftentimes you may think that an item appears like one serving but can be two or three. A 20-ounce bottle of soda is a perfect example (it contains 2.5 servings).

Now that you’re familiar with the basics, choose one or two food items to start comparing at the market. Some examples are below:

  • Whole wheat bread and fiber: The more fiber the better. Aim for 4 to 5 grams of fiber per slice.
  • Low fat cheese and total fat: Choose low fat cheese with 5 grams or less per serving.
  • Snack foods and trans fat: Look for zero trans fat in snack foods like chips. Read the ingredients to make sure no words like partially-hydrogenated pop up either.
  • Cereal and sugar: Check the ingredients to make sure sugar is not listed as the first 3 ingredients.

TELL US: What do you look for on food labels?

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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Comments (11)

  1. SusieBeeonMaui says:

    Cholesterol, trans fat, added sugar; it's amazing all the things that have added sugar.

  2. Thanks for this great story, Toby! If your readers are interested, my book, "Read It Before You Eat It" (Plume) is a great — everything you wanted to know about food shopping — guide. Hope we can help people flip over more packages for better health!

  3. Kristin says:

    I primarily look for partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, and MSG related ingredients. Then I look to see if it has any ingredients that have no business being in that product!

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