How to Read a Nutrition Label

Sodium free. Good source of fiber. These are just two of the promises we see on grocery items every day. But what are these nutrition labels really saying? Manufacturers have to meet very specific criteria in order to write certain things like “low fat” but other phrases are not monitored as closely. Learn label lingo and you can choose products that meet your diet needs.

  • Gloss over the grams and focus on the percentage Daily Value to determine fat, sodium and carbs. Then measure that against the serving size you will actually be eating.
  • In general, if one serving contains 5% or less of your daily value, it’s considered low. If a serving has 20% or more of the recommended daily value, then it is considered a high source of the given nutrient.
  • According to the FDA, 77% of our sodium intake comes from packaged and restaurant foods. So you definitely want to read nutrition labels and choose products that are low in sodium (less than 5% DV). Rinse canned foods like beans or vegetables before cooking to eliminate some of the excess sodium.
  • Check the ingredient list. The first item listed is what the product contains the most of.  This helpful for assessing claims like “made with real fruit” which does not mean you are getting a full serving of fruit or even half of one. The majority may still be sugar and corn syrup and the “real” stuff may be a minor ingredient.
  • Be weary of proclamations that tout health benefits like, “This product is good for your heart.” It does not imply an endorsement by the FDA and does not necessarily mean it’s better for your heart than the other comparable items on the shelf. In fact, sometimes you’ll even find fine print on the package that says the FDA finds little scientific evidence to support this claim.
  • In order to be labeled light, a product must have at least one-third less calories or contain at least 50% less fat or sodium. There is an exception though. Sometimes light refers to color, not nutrition, like light brown sugar or light molasses.
  • “High” is better than “Good Source.” For example, a product is high in fiber if it has at least 5 grams. It is a good source of fiber if it has 2.5-4.9 grams.

Final Word: Nutrition labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, but you may need more or less depending on age, gender and activity level. Create your own daily food plan at