How do I Read Food Labels?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A lot of interesting and important information can be found on a food label, but some people don't read food labels or aren't sure about how they should interpret the information on food labels. Learning to read food labels can be an important step in improving nutrition, and it can also save people money, as reading labels can help savvy shoppers pick out the best nutritional and financial choices in the store. In addition to looking at the nutritional information on the label, shoppers should also pay attention to the ingredients list, the claims made on the front of the label, and amount of food contained in the package.

One of the chief differences between "organic" and "natural" lies in how the local government defines those terms.
One of the chief differences between "organic" and "natural" lies in how the local government defines those terms.

When people think about reading food labels, they often think of the nutritional label. Nutritional labeling is designed to provide people with basic information about the nutritional content of the food they are buying, so that they can make sound choices. The top of a nutritional level indicates the size of a serving, and the number of servings in a package: it's important to pay attention to this, because a serving size might be smaller than expected, especially with high-calorie foods, in which the manufacturer may scale the serving size down to avoid having to list a high calorie content per serving.

Reading labels can improve diet as well as help customers save money.
Reading labels can improve diet as well as help customers save money.

The nutritional label also states the number of calories in a serving; as a general rule, 400 calories is high, 100 calories is a moderate amount, and 40 calories is low. The label discloses specifically the number of calories derived from fat before listing key nutritional content such as fat, saturated fat, dietary fiber, sugars, and various vitamins and minerals. This content is usually described in the form of a percentage of daily value, and people should pay attention to the number of calories total the manufacturer is using to calculate daily value, as some use a 2,000 calorie basis, and others use a 2,500 calorie basis. As a general rule, the label on a nutritionally sound item should indicate that the food is high in fiber, protein, and vitamins, and low in fats, carbohydrates, and sugars.

Beyond looking at the nutritional label, when people read food labels, they should check out the ingredients list. Some nutritional advocates are fond of saying that if a food label lists an ingredient which can't be pronounced, the food shouldn't be eaten. While this might be a little bit extreme, it is good to look for food labels which contain primarily familiar ingredients, and to seek out labels which do not list ingredients like sugar first.

It's also important to pay attention to ingredients to address concerns about food allergies and religious dietary restrictions, because strange ingredients can pop up in surprising places. Consumers who want to read food labels properly should be aware that package sizes can change, especially when a company wants to raise prices without upsetting consumers. That jar of tomato sauce with a familiar price, in other words, might not contain as much as a consumer is used to, which can mean that the sauce is actually more expensive because consumers are getting less for the same price, and that the consumer will encounter problems if he or she is relying on a familiar package size for a recipe.

It's also important to be aware of the laws surrounding claims which manufacturers are allowed to make about their food when people read food labels. Some labels such as “organic” are governed by a specific code, and foods which bear this label must indicate that they have passed inspection. Others, like “natural,” are not regulated by law, which means that a company can use that claim whenever it feels like it. For a complete listing of terms on food labels which are regulated by law, people can contact the government agency which regulates the production, sale, and safety of food, such as the Food and Drug Administration and United States Department of Agriculture in the United States.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


The FDA has a lot of useful material about what we should look for in a food label and this article has basically covered everything.

I think the biggest mistake we tend to make is to automatically flip over the box or packaging and just look at the number of calories. Calories don't say much about something though. It may be low in calories but have three times the amount of your daily salt intake.

And the bit about the use of "natural" is so true! It's everywhere! But when you turn it over and read the ingredients, you can see that they added like a hundred other things into it.


I'm studying food science and I absolutely agree that you should not avoid foods simply because you can't read the ingredients list.

Many times, scientists and dieticians use the scientific name for something rather than the common name that the public uses. For example, vitamin C is called ascorbic acid on food labels. It's clearly not bad for you!


Food labels get confusing. I have learned to look out for several things before I buy something. I always check for fat, fiber, salt and sugar content. In general, the less the fat, salt, sugar and the more the fiber, the better. The best way to find the right products is to compare several different brands for the same food and compare the amounts found in them while in the store.

I usually look for foods with less than 3 grams of fat, as little salt as possible, less than 5 grams of sugar and at least 4 or 5 grams of fiber per serving.

Of course this is not possible for all foods, like cheese will always have more fat than a piece of bread. That's why it's good to compare among the different brands of the same product.

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