Food Labeling 101: Understanding the Nutrition Facts Label

Don't be afraid of the food label on prepared foods; learn to read it right and it can be your best tool to aid with healthy eating.
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Person Reading Nutrition Label on Packaged Food

Photo by: Ryan McVay ©(c) Ryan McVay

Ryan McVay, (c) Ryan McVay

For a long time, I was that person awkwardly standing in the middle of a supermarket aisle staring at the myriad of cereals wondering which was right for me. But the reality is the Nutrition Facts label on the back of each box provides me with all the information I need to choose the cereal that best fits my diet. I have found that many of my clients choose one section of the food label such as calories or total fat, and they base their food choices off that number. But it's important to understand the whole label and realize that it's a wonderful tool you can use to investigate exactly what each product contains and which product is the best choice. Remember, real, whole  foods like fruits and vegetables are always the best bet. But when it comes to convenience foods, the food label and especially the ingredient list is the perfect guide to help you make better choices.

The ingredient list is the last section of the Nutrition Facts label, but certainly not least, as some may say it's the most important. Here you’ll find a list of the ingredients in the product. Ingredients are listed in order of amount by weight, starting with the largest amounts. This can be the most important information if there are ingredients you’re avoiding for one reason or another. For example, it is wise to avoid products that list sugar or a sugar derivative as one of the first foods in the ingredient list.

The ingredient list can be a great tool for you to use in making healthy food choices. Keep these simple rules in mind when choosing products and you will likely avoid highly processed items, which can be detrimental to your health.

  • Choose foods with ingredients you can pronounce as they're likely to contain whole foods instead of additives, preservatives and chemicals.
  • Avoid foods with long ingredient lists as they often contain many “non-food” products.
  • Food for thought: Think about the ingredients you would use if making a recipe from scratch and only buy foods containing those ingredients or close to it.  An example is pasta sauce. It contains tomatoes, garlic, onions, oil and herbs. Choose a store-bought sauce with those ingredients for as close to the real thing as possible.
 What tips and tricks do you keep in mind while reading the food label?

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Katie Cavuto Boyle, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, personal chef and owner of HealthyBites, LLC. See Katie's full bio »

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