Food labels are meant to be helpful—one look and you should instantly be able to tell if an item is nutritious or not. But all too often, they’re more confusing than clear. Does this soup have too much sodium? How important is total fat? Should I even care about carbohydrates? There’s definitely a science to dissecting food labels—keep reading to learn exactly how to do it.
1. Start with the ingredient list. “If the list is short—five ingredients or less—and made up of just a few foods you can easily recognize, then chances are it’s a wholesome choice,” says Tracy Morris, the in-house dietitian at Fitbit. “If, on the other hand, it’s filled with chemicals, various kinds of added sugars, saturated fats, and salt, it’s probably best to leave the item on the shelf.” Another way to think about it: Would you be able to whip this up in your kitchen at home using the ingredients listed? If not, skip it. Also, ingredients are listed from largest amount to smallest, so ideally you don’t want added sugar or saturated fat appearing in the top three.
2. Double-check portion sizes. The rest of the label is all based on a single portion, so make sure you understand what constitutes one serving. If the bag of chips is three servings and you finish the entire package, you’re going to need to multiply all of the numbers by three. A better idea: Stick to one serving.
3. Get clued in on calories. “Everybody’s calorie needs differ, but if you eat 2,000 calories a day, each of your meals should be around 500 calories, with a couple of snacks around 250,” says Morris. “If you’re trying to lose weight, drop those numbers a little—make your meals 350 to 400 calories and your snacks 100 to 200.”
4. Steer clear of too much added sugar. You’ll find the sweet stuff where you least expect it, in foods like beef jerky and tomato soup. Keep it to less than five grams per serving, and put back any items that have 15 grams or more of total sugar. “15 grams of sugar is nearly four teaspoons—that’s just too high,” says Morris. The one exception: If the sugar is coming from actual fresh fruit (not fruit juice or dried fruit) those calories aren’t completely empty—“it’s delivering fiber and beneficial nutrients, too,” says Morris.
5. Focus on fat. This part of the food label is tricky: There are lines for total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. While it’s good to keep an eye on total fat, the second two are more important. That’s because foods high in healthy fats, like salmon, avocado, and nuts, shouldn’t be ruled out. You want the trans fats to be zero and the saturated fat to be as low as possible—anything below five percent daily value per serving is ideal, above 20 percent is too high.
6. Scan the sodium content. “Sodium is used to enhance flavor, and even non-salty foods, like breakfast cereals, can be high in it,” says Morris. Less than 120 mg per serving is low while anything above 400 mg is considered high. (Can’t remember these numbers? Look for something with less than five percent of your daily value of sodium in it.)
7. Fill up on fiber and protein. “The fiber content is most important if you’re looking at a grain product, like cereal, bread, or crackers,” says Morris. “That’s because if it’s made with whole grains, it will generally be high in fiber.” What’s the goal? Anything above five grams of fiber per serving is considered high (again, go for more than 20 percent of your daily value). As for protein, good goals are at least 10 grams for a snack and 25 grams for lunch or dinner to make sure the food keeps you full.
8. Don’t worry so much about cholesterol or carbohydrates. “Saturated fats are much more responsible for raising blood cholesterol than the cholesterol found in foods,” says Morris. And you can’t tell much about how healthy a food is based on total carbohydrates—if you ensure total sugars are low and fiber is high, you’ve got good carbs covered, she says.