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Healthy You

A Dietitian’s Tips for Reading Food Labels

Thursday, May 19, 2016 8:54 AM

Whether you are trying to be conscious of the carbohydrates in your food or watching your portion sizes for weight loss, reading labels can be very daunting. At first glance, there are many numbers and percentages that jump out, and it’s hard to know what is good and what is bad. Kim Hammon, Registered Dietitian at NorthShore, breaks the nutrition label into five parts to help us better understand:


  1. Serving size. Usually in familiar units – such as cups, ounces or package - serving sizes are followed by their metric amount as well. The units are standardized to make it easier to compare similar products. Because serving size and portion size aren’t the same, it is important to pay attention to how much you consume. For example, if a serving size of cereal is ½ cup and your bowl has about 1 cup in it, then you have had two servings.
  2. Calories are how much energy we receive from the food we consume. The calories listed are the amount per serving. Back to the cereal example, if you have two servings then you will have had twice the amount of calories. The average diet is recommended to be at 2,000 calories per day. Some people may need more or less, depending on if they are trying to lose or gain weight. To know how many calories you should be eating each day, talk with your primary care physician or Registered Dietitian.
  3. Nutrients are key to a healthy diet. In the nutrients part of the label you can see how much of each your product has. The Food and Drug Administration has broken down nutrients into two groups: “limit these” nutrients and “get enough of these” nutrients.
    • It is recommended that you limit total fat, cholesterol and sodium.
    • We need to make sure we get enough fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron.
  4. % Daily Value. This guide recommends how much of each nutrient is in a serving in terms of the daily recommended amount based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
    • The reference diet is used to give the public a guide to a healthy diet. If the percentage is under 5% it is considered a low item. You want to aim for items low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.
    • 20% or above is considered high. For vitamins, minerals and fiber this would be a positive to have high values. For fat, cholesterol and sodium, having high percentages would not be a good choice. This means that one item is providing 20% or more of your fat, sodium or cholesterol for the whole day. 

It is important to remember that the % Daily Value is based on an entire day’s worth of meals.

When it comes to reading labels, practice makes perfect. If you still have any questions, talk with a Registered Dietitian.

How has reading labels helped you improve nutrition in your diet?