It’s a common scenario: You’re at the grocery store perusing the shelves for a healthy — and satisfying — cereal. As you begin to look at the different boxes, enticing claims jump out at you from every direction: “low-sugar,” “fat-free,” “high-fiber,” “all-natural.” Where do you even begin?
If you’re wondering how to read food labels for healthy eating — you’re in the right place. Marketing claims can be confusing — but with a few tips, you can understand the nutrition facts label like a pro — and make healthy and educated choices based on what a product really contains.
We tapped Jenny Craig’s Registered Dietitian, Briana Rodriquez, to understand how to read nutritional food labels and get her top tips for picking products that will support your health and weight loss goals.
What is a nutrition facts label?
Let’s start with the basics: Why are all of those ingredients, numbers and percentages listed on the back of packages? For your health and safety!
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures that the products you buy are “safe, wholesome and properly labeled.”1 Products sold in the U.S. display food labels that adhere to FDA regulations. While these regulations can change, the goal is to provide consumers with accurate information to be able to make educated dietary decisions.
Nutrition label basics
“Essentially, there are four different sections on a nutrition label,” Rodriquez says.
- Serving size
- % Daily value
Each section contains important information that can guide you in making healthier decisions. “Depending on your goals, you’ll want to look for different things on the label,” Rodriquez emphasizes.
We’ll break down each section and point out what to spot the next time you’re considering a food purchase — especially when it comes to weight loss.
Located at the very top of the nutrition facts label, you’ll notice two things:
- Servings per container
- Serving size
“The serving size is very important if you’re trying to lose weight,” Rodriquez notes. “It’s important to note that the serving size isn’t a recommendation of how much you should eat, rather it’s a reflection of how much an average person generally consumes, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. If you don’t want to consume an entire serving — or if you want to eat more — that is always up to you and depends on what you’re trying to achieve.”
For example, let’s take a container of oatmeal. The serving size is ½ cup and there are 30 servings per container. You probably wouldn’t eat an entire container of oatmeal at once, but the serving size gives you a general idea of how much someone usually consumes of that product.
It can be easy to assume the information listed on the back of a product is for the entire package — that’s where the servings per container are useful. The nutrients listed below the serving size are for one serving.
“If you notice there are several servings in a package, eating the entire thing might not be in your best interest — or it might! — depending on how much you want to eat,” Rodriquez says.
The takeaway: Take both the serving size and servings per container into account before you prepare or consume food. This information can also help you spot higher-calorie foods that you might want to avoid if you’re trying to lose weight.
Now, let’s move down the nutrition facts label to calories. Calories are units of energy.2 “The food you eat gives you the energy you need to do all the things you love,” Rodriquez exclaims.
Returning to the example of oatmeal, if you’re looking at calories, the amount listed is for one serving (½ cup). Let’s say there are 150 calories in ½ cup of oatmeal. If you eat more than one serving (which you might, depending on your calorie intake needs), you would multiply how many servings you plan to eat by the calories. If you ate 2 servings (1 cup), you would consume approximately 300 calories of oatmeal.
The takeaway: If you’re trying to lose weight, monitoring your calorie intake can help. Keep an eye on this stat to pick weight loss-friendly foods that will support your goals.
“This is the part of the label that is overwhelming for many people,” Rodriquez admits. “But when you know what to look for, it’s not as complicated as it looks, I promise.”
“Start with your goals,” Rodriquez says. “If you’re trying to boost your protein intake — take a look at the total protein. If you want something high in fiber — check how much dietary fiber a product contains. That way you can start with what is most important to you and go from there.”
Here’s a snapshot of what you’ll find on the back of most nutrition labels and what each means.
Total Fat: The dietary reference intake (DRI) for adults is 20% to 35% of total calories from fat.3
Let’s get one thing straight: All fat isn’t bad! Fat helps you absorb vitamins, is an excellent source of energy, helps to keep you satiated and can even protect your heart.3 But there are certain kinds you’ll want to limit. Total fat will include all the fats found in the product including saturated fat, trans fat, monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Saturated Fat: Try not to consume more than 10% of your total calories from saturated fat.3
Eating too much saturated fat is linked to higher levels of LDL (lower-density lipoprotein) cholesterol — the “bad” kind — and inflammation throughout the body.3 Saturated fats are typically found in animal products and some oils — so be mindful of your consumption.
Trans Fat: Avoid trans fats whenever possible.
“Try to stay away from trans fats as much as possible,” Rodriquez says. Since there is no safe level of this fat, it’s recommended to steer clear of them.4 You can typically find trans fats in fried food and heavily processed foods like coffee creamers.
Did you know? All of Jenny Craig’s food has 0 grams of trans fats.
Cholesterol: Try to limit your intake to 100-300 milligrams a day.3
Cholesterol is only found in animal products, and there is typically more in high-fat foods. Although new research shows a weak link between dietary cholesterol intake and heart disease,4 try to limit your consumption.5
Sodium: Aim for no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.6
Did you know? Table salt isn’t usually the culprit of a high-sodium diet. More than 70% of the average American’s sodium intake comes from restaurant and processed foods.7
Total Carbohydrates: Adults should aim to get 45% to 65% of their daily calories from carbohydrates.8
Repeat after us: Carbs are fuel and you need them! This section on the nutrition facts label shows you how many total carbs (which include fiber, sugar and added sugar) are in a product.
Dietary Fiber: Adults should aim to consume 25-30 grams of fiber daily.9
Many adults don’t eat enough fiber. So check for products that contain this nutrient. Dietary fiber can help with weight management and give your digestion a boost.10
This is the total amount of sugar in a product — naturally occurring and added. There currently isn’t a general recommendation for how much total sugar you should consumer per day — only added.
Added Sugar: Experts recommend limiting added sugars to no more than 10% of your daily calories.11
This is a relatively new — but very important — section of the nutrition facts label. Now you can easily see how much sugar is added to a product. Make sure to scope out this section even on seemingly “healthy” foods! Fruit drinks, yogurts and cereals can all be unsuspecting “health” foods with lots of added sugar.
Protein: Aim to get 10-35% of your daily calories from protein.12
Protein can help you feel full, boost your metabolism and help increase your muscle mass.13 While most foods contain some sort of protein, this section can help you see if a food is on the high-end or low-end. Lean meats, lentils, eggs and nonfat dairy products are all excellent sources.
Vitamins and Minerals
Men and women have different recommended requirements for various vitamins and minerals. Check out the Cleveland Clinic’s guide to learn more.
From calcium to iron and vitamin D to potassium, this section will show you what vitamins and minerals a product contains.
The takeaway: Review the nutrient list to see if a product will support your goals — whether you’re looking for something high in protein, low in fat or packed with fiber — this is where you’ll spot it.
% Daily Value
The percentage daily value is listed on the right-hand side of the nutrition label. This percentage is based on a standard 2,000 calorie diet — so you may need more or less of a specific nutrient depending on your goals — but it’s still an excellent guide to reference.
The daily value is your cheat sheet to determine if a food is high or low in a nutrient:14
- >5% is considered low
- <20% is considered high
So, if you’re trying to steer clear of sodium or added sugar, take a peek at the percentage daily value — it’ll give you a hint as to whether or not it’s something you want to eat.
The takeaway: The percentage daily value is your cheat sheet when it comes to knowing how much of a certain ingredient is in a product compared to your total calorie intake.
Bonus: Ingredients List
While the ingredient list isn’t technically part of the nutrition facts label — knowing how to decipher it will help you big time when it comes to choosing healthier foods.
“Look at the ingredient list before making a purchase!” Rodriquez urges. She adds, “Good-for-you options will include whole foods in the first few ingredients.”
Since ingredients are listed by order of predominance, the ingredients listed first will give you an indication of what the product is primarily made of.15
If the first ingredient is sugar — or another word that ends in “ose” like sucrose, fructose, dextrose — beware! This is a sugar bomb.
On the flip side, just because a product has a few ingredients you can’t pronounce, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “bad” for you. There are lots of naturally-derived additives that can help preserve flavor and lock in nutrients. For example, ascorbic acid is another term for vitamin C and it’s primarily used to fortify and maintain the color and texture of a product. It’s just like squeezing a lemon or lime on an avocado to keep it fresh!
“Generally, the shorter the ingredient list, the better — but you don’t need to get bogged down figuring out every ingredient,” Rodriquez advises. “Scan for foods you recognize and focus on those first few ingredients.”
The takeaway: What a product contains, matters! Always make sure to check out the ingredient list to see if the product is made primarily of whole, quality food.
The bottom line
We hope we’ve given you the tools you need to know how to read nutritional food labels for healthy eating. The nutrition facts label is a tool you can use to make educated and healthy choices that support your weight loss and health goals. We hope you use these tips to choose healthy foods the next time you’re at the supermarket!
Need a little help with healthy eating and weight loss? Jenny Craig’s got you covered. Take control of your weight with our proven plan. Get started today.
Elisa is a content marketing manager for Jenny Craig with over ten years of experience working in the health and fitness industry. She loves sharing her passion for living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. An endurance sports enthusiast, she is usually swimming in the pool, biking along the coast highway or running by the beach in her free time. Elisa holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University, Chico.
Favorite healthy snack: mozzarella string cheese with a Pink Lady apple
Reviewed by: Briana Rodriquez, RDN
Briana Rodriquez, RDN Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and is written by experienced health and lifestyle contributors and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.