Read Labels for Smart Food Shopping


True or false? If a food or drink comes in an individual package, it’s an individual serving.

That would be false. Even small containers, such as a pint of ice cream, contain more than one serving. That’s one of the reasons it pays to read labels and understand the fine print.

What to Look for on Labels

Serving size is just one of the items worth reviewing. Check the calorie count on the label against your recommended intake. For example, guidelines for adult women are 1,800-2,200 calories per day, depending on physical activity. If a product has 700 calories/serving, that’s around a third of your daily intake.

Read the ingredient list. Nutritionists tell us the fewer ingredients, the better the food. A long list of ingredients is a sign that the product contains a lot of additives and chemicals, especially if those ingredients are hard to pronounce. As a general rule of thumb, choose foods with no more than five ingredients.

Learn which fats are included. Skip bad fats, such as trans fats found in partially or fully hydrogenated oils. Trans fats are often present in commercial baked goods, bread and other processed foods, where they’re used to extend shelf lives. Stick with unsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, fatty fish and with healthy oils, like olive, sesame and peanut oil.

Look for foods high in fiber. Adult women need 25 grams a day; adult men should have 38 grams. Minimize sodium – the recommendations for adults under 50 (and without chronic disease) are only 23 mg (about one teaspoon) a day.

Keep an eye on total grams of sugar, especially hidden sugars. These are often added to food, especially low-fat food, to improve its taste. Hidden sugars are high in calories and lacking in nutrients. Sugar in all its forms is the subject of our next blog post; you’ll find more on this subject on January 27.

New Labeling in the Works

To help you choose wisely, the FDA will be rolling out changes to nutrition labels in the next year or so. The new labels will include:

  • Bolder calorie information to help you manage weight

  • The amount of added sugar to avoid empty calories linked to disease

  • New vitamins, such as vitamin D and potassium, that most people don’t get enough of

  • Types of fat rather than “calories from fat,” because of the differences between good and bad fats

  • An emphasis on serving sizes for smart portion control