Expert Q&A

Food label reading: Suggestions for a quick analysis

How can I quickly read a food label?

The first place to start when you look at the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Eating 2 servings doubles everything! Percent Daily Values (DV) tells you whether a food is high or low nutrients, helping you evaluate how a food fits into your daily meal plan. They are calculated for a person eating 2,000 calories daily. A food item with a 5% DV means 5% of the amount of fat that a person consuming 2,000 calories a day would eat. You may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day. If you need fewer calories, your personal daily value may be lower and vice versa. For some nutrients you may need more or less than 100% DV but can get that from a variety of foods.

Explaining what the labels mean

Less than 5% is low. Select foods that are low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

More than 20% is high. Choose foods that have high values listed for vitamins, minerals and fiber.

  • Calories. As a general rule of thumb, (to keep calorie intake under control and avoid weight gain), most people should eat snacks that are less than 200 calories and meals that are less than 500 calories.
  • Fat. Try the 3-gram rule. You should get less than 30% of your total daily calories from fat. So, for individual products, try to stick to 3 grams of fat per 100 calories.

  • Saturated fat. Compare labels on similar foods. Try to choose foods that have less than 5% DV or with less than 2 grams saturated fat.

  • Trans fat. Choose foods with the little or no trans fat. Watch out for food products that list “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list, especially if it is within the first 5 ingredients listed, as ingredients are listed by weight.

  • Sodium. High sodium intake is linked to higher blood pressure. Look for labels that say "low sodium." Foods that are low in sodim contain no more than 5% DV.

Glossary of Terms (per serving):

  • Low calorie. Less than 40 calories

  • Low cholesterol. Less than 20 milligrams of cholesterol and less than 2 grams of saturated fat
  • Reduced. This equals 25% less of the specified nutrient/calories than the “regular” product.
  • Fat free/sugar free. The products should contain 1/2 gram or less of fat or sugar.
  • Low sodium. These products should have less than 140 milligrams of sodium.
  • High fiber. These products should have more than 5 grams of fiber.
  • Lean (meats). These meats should have less than 10 grams of fat, 4 1/2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 3 ounces.
  • Light. These products should contain 1/3 fewer calories or 1/2 the fat of the “regular” food.
  • Healthy. The product should have decreased fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol and more than 10% of the DV for vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and fiber.
Michèle Turcotte, MS, RD/LDN
Contributing Expert

Have a question for our Experts? Send it in!