How to Read Food Labels

While many people recognize that food insecurity is the lack of reliable access to food, some are unaware that part of its definition is that the food should be nutritious. To figure out which foods are best, we have to look at the food labels. But if we stopped and read every label, all the way through, we would never leave the grocery store. There are a few things to look for when trying to decide on whether a food would contribute to a healthy diet. Here are the top five things to look for and how to use them:

Serving Size

Serving sizes put all the other information on the food label into context. Serving sizes are standardized which makes it easy to compare different foods. By looking at the serving size, you can see how much of that food contains the listed calories and nutrients on the food label.


Although calories have gotten a bad reputation, they are nothing to be afraid of. In fact, we need calories to give us the energy to do all the things on our to-do list. They are the fuel that our bodies use. Calories are listed on the top of the food label. It’s important to remember that the number of servings you eat influences the number of calories you are consuming.


All our foods are comprised of one or more of the three macronutrients. These are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. We need all of these to create a balanced diet. In food insecure populations, it is common for individuals to not get enough protein and whole grain carbohydrates. It’s important to try and pick foods high in protein, when possible, to try and reach a range of 10-35% of our daily calories. In addition, it is recommended we replace refined grains such as breads and cereals with whole grains.


With our food becoming increasingly processed, it’s important to make sure that we are not overdoing it on the salt. Sodium content on the food label is typically measured in milligrams. Based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should aim to get no more than 2,300 mg of sodium from our foods per day.

Saturated Fat

Just like sodium, saturated fat is another component of the food label to pay attention too. Although we need fat in a healthy diet, saturated fats are the types of fat we want to limit. On a food label, saturated fat will be listed separately under the total fat content of the food. This makes it simple to determine how much saturated specifically is in our food. We should aim to get no more than 10% of our daily calories from saturated fats. For example, an individual consuming 2,000 calories per day should try to limit their saturated fat to 20 grams per day. Foods that are high in this type of fat are butter, cheese, fatty meats, and fried foods.

Source: NBC News

Source: NBC News

There are also some changes being made to the nutrition fact labels. The new style labels make it more convenient for consumers to make healthy food choices. When compared to the original label, the new label has a bolded serving sizes and calories making it faster for individuals to compare foods. Another important change to the label is sugars are now broken down into total sugars and added sugars. This makes it possible to know how much of the sugar in the food is natural and how much is added to the food through processing. Additionally, the micronutrients at the bottom of the label will have the actual amount of the nutrient rather than just the percentage of the daily value making it easier for consumers to monitor their intake of these micronutrients. By the year 2020, almost all the food labels will have these new changes.

Creating a balanced lifestyle is challenging. And those who are juggling school, work, and life have additional barriers to overcome. But learning which foods to choose even when the options are limited can help improve your diet and overall well-being.

Mara McCann