How to read a nutrition label like a dietitian

A woman at the market reading the nutrition label of frozen food

Claims on the front of food packages — sugar free, lower in sodium, low calorie — don’t always mean they’re a healthier option.

As sugar is eliminated from “sugar free” products, fat is typically added for flavor. So, the calories of a sugar free food might be the same as a similar product with sugar. “Lower in sodium” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s low in sodium. And whether something is “low calorie” depends partly on the size of the serving they’ve measured. Even ice cream, would be low in calories in a very small serving.

It’s important to turn to the side or back of the package to read the nutrition facts. But with all the details — saturated fat, trans fat, total carbohydrates — how do you know what to focus on? That depends on your health and whether you have a condition such as high cholesterol or diabetes.

When you’re reading a food label, consider these tips:

Serving size

Find out how many grams, ounces or cups are considered one serving. That will help you know exactly how many calories, grams of sodium, protein and other nutrients you’re getting. You may think you’re only getting 150 calories from the cookies you ate, but that might be 150 calories times four if you ate four cookies.


There are three categories of fats listed in a food label:

  • Total fat: The amount of “bad fats” (saturated fat and trans fat) plus the “good fats” (polyunsaturated fat or monounsaturated fat). The good fats are contained in foods such as avocados and olive oil.
  • Saturated fat: An unhealthy fat found in foods such as butter, cheese and red meat. Try to limit yourself to a maximum of about 100 calories of saturated fat a day.
  • Trans fat: Manmade fat that gets stored in your blood vessels as plaque. Stay away from foods with trans fat, also called hydrogenated oils. Trans fat might be in chips or pre-packaged sugary dessert snacks.


Try to limit cholesterol to 300 mg a day if you have high cholesterol or a cardiac condition.


Sodium helps preserve food, so it’s common for processed food to have a lot. It’s best if you have no more than about one teaspoon of salt a day. No single serving should contain more than 300 mg of sodium. Keep in mind that sea salt is no healthier than table salt.

Total carbohydrates

Total carbohydrates includes starches, dietary fiber, sugars and sugar alcohols. On a food label under total carbohydrates, you’ll find three categories:

  • Dietary fiber: Fiber is important for a healthy gut. Daily, you need 25 to 35 grams of fiber, but most people get between 6 and 11 grams.
  • Sugars: This category of sugars represents sugars found naturally, such as in fruit. You don’t need to avoid naturally occurring sugar, but try to eat more vegetables than fruit every day.
  • Added sugars: These are artificial sugars that were added — extra calories you don’t need. It’s best to stay below 5 grams per serving of added sugars.


Protein helps you build bone and muscle, and protein helps you stay full longer than carbohydrates do. Lentils, eggs, peanut butter, meats and salmon are some foods high in protein.

Ingredients to avoid

In the ingredient list toward the bottom of the food label, try to limit or avoid foods that contain:

  • High fructose corn syrup, an artificial sweetener found sometimes in cereals or bread among other foods. When eaten frequently, high fructose corn syrup can lead to serious health issues, including diabetes and heart disease.
  • Sodium nitrates/nitrites, preservatives sometimes added to deli meats.
  • Artificial flavors and colors don't add anything nutritious to our bodies, and they’re usually found in highly processed, high-sugar foods.
  • MSG or monosodium glutamate, which, like salt, enhances flavor, but isn’t healthy if eaten regularly. It might be found in soy sauce, barbecue sauce or chips.

It can be overwhelming to consider all the nutrients we need and the ingredients we should steer clear of. It might be simpler to think about it this way: Are you getting enough fruits and vegetables? Are you getting enough calcium from a low-fat source and enough protein?

The overall goal is to not focus solely on one specific nutrient or component of a food product, but to look at the food as a whole. The complete mix of everything that makes up a food can help you to determine the benefits or downsides of that food.

With a diet that focuses on whole foods first, foods that either aren’t processed or are minimally processed, there’s still occasionally room for a little bit of “junk food” — foods that just might nourish the soul more than the body.

Healthy eating is within your reach!

Make an appointment with our dietitians or nutritionists.

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