7 Essential Tips to Read Nutritional Labels

read nutritional label

In today’s fast-paced world, packaged foods and beverages have become a common part of our diet. These items come with nutrition labels that provide essential information about their contents, helping us make healthier decisions.

However, understanding and interpreting these labels can sometimes be a challenge. In this blog, we’ll explore seven key factors you should know when reading a nutrition label to make more informed choices about the foods and drinks you consume.

1. Understanding Food and Beverage Product Dates

Before diving into the nutrition facts, it’s important to grasp the various product dates commonly found on packaged foods and beverages. These include:

  • “Sell by” date: This date advises retailers on how long they should sell items like meat, poultry, eggs, or dairy products. It’s crucial to buy these items by this date.
  • “Use by” date: This date indicates the peak quality period for the product. Consuming it after this date may result in a loss of freshness or flavor.
  • “Best if used by” or “best if used before” date: This suggests how long the product will maintain its optimal flavor or quality. Importantly, it doesn’t indicate that the product is unsafe to consume.

Keep in mind that these dates are not federally regulated and are added voluntarily by manufacturers. While they offer valuable guidance, they don’t necessarily determine the safety of the product.

2. How to Read the Nutrition Facts Label

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that most packaged foods and beverages display a Nutrition Facts label. This label provides essential insights into the nutritional content of the product. Here’s how to decipher it:

  • Serving Size: At the top of the label, you’ll find the serving size and the total number of servings in the container. The serving size reflects what people typically consume in one sitting, but it doesn’t necessarily recommend how much you should eat.
  • Calories and Nutrients: The label presents information about the calories and nutrients in one serving of the product. If a container contains multiple servings, the label will also include values for the entire package. If you consume the entire package, you’ll need to double the listed values.

3. No Label Is Not Always a Bad Thing

Fresh fruits and vegetables often don’t feature nutrition labels, and that’s perfectly fine. These natural, unprocessed foods are an essential part of a healthy diet. While you may not find a nutrition label on a bunch of spinach, an apple, or a head of broccoli, there are alternative ways to access the nutritional information you need to make informed choices.

The absence of a nutrition label on fresh produce doesn’t imply that these foods lack nutritional value. On the contrary, fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that are vital for your health.

4. Understanding Percent Daily Value (% DV)

The Percent Daily Value (% DV) is a critical aspect of the Nutrition Facts label. It conveys how much a nutrient in a serving contributes to a 2,000-calorie daily diet. Keep in mind that individual calorie needs can vary depending on your lifestyle. If you consume fewer calories, your % DV for a nutrient will be higher than the label indicates.

Use the % DV to evaluate whether a food or drink aligns with your nutritional objectives. For example, many older adults exceed the recommended limits for saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars. Therefore, it’s advisable to choose foods with less than 100% DV for these nutrients.

Conversely, if you’re deficient in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, or potassium, aim for 100% DV to reduce the risk of certain health conditions. Remember that the DV is not tailored to the unique needs of older adults, so consider the overall context of your diet when analyzing the label.

5. Is Lower DV Always Healthier?

Not necessarily. If a food item has 5% DV or less for a nutrient per serving, it’s considered low in that nutrient. Conversely, if it has 20% DV or more, it’s deemed high. However, whether this is beneficial or not depends on your specific dietary requirements.

For instance, if you need more of a particular nutrient, such as dietary fiber, a low DV may not be ideal. On the other hand, if you’re trying to limit your intake of a nutrient, like saturated fat, a high DV might not align with your goals.

6. How to Read the Ingredient List

The ingredient list is another crucial part of food and beverage labels. It provides a breakdown of what the product contains, listed in descending order by weight. This means the ingredient with the highest weight appears first, while the one with the lowest weight is listed last.

Pay close attention to this section, as it can reveal important information about the product’s composition. Look out for terms indicating added sugars, such as brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup. Artificial sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame should also be consumed in moderation.

7. Light, Low-Calorie, Organic Labeling — What Do These Mean?

Food and beverage packaging often includes terms intended to convey healthiness. However, it’s essential to understand what these terms truly represent. The FDA has specific rules for terms like “light,” “low,” “reduced,” “free,” and others. Here’s a brief overview:

  • Light: Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some “light” products are essentially diluted versions of the original, with potentially added sugars to compensate for reduced calories and fat.
  • Low-fat, Low-calorie, Low-carb: These foods are subject to legal limits on the amount of fat, calories, or carbohydrates per serving. However, if the serving size is small, you might end up consuming multiple servings in one sitting, effectively negating the reductions.
  • Multigrain: While this term sounds healthy, it merely indicates that the product contains more than one type of grain. It doesn’t guarantee the use of whole grains, which offer more nutritional value.
  • Organic: Organic products are produced without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, biotechnology, or ionizing radiation. Organic animal products come from animals that have been fed organic feed and not treated with hormones or antibiotics. Organic foods can still have the same calorie, fat, protein, and carbohydrate content as non-organic items.

It’s important to be aware that while certain labeling terms are regulated, others are not. Always read the nutrition label to ensure that a product aligns with your healthy eating goals.


Mastering the art of reading a nutrition label is crucial for making informed dietary choices. By familiarizing yourself with product dates, serving sizes, % DV, ingredient lists, and labeling terms, you can empower yourself to select foods and beverages that support your health and well-being. Reading food labels is a skill that can contribute to a healthier and more conscious lifestyle.

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