With diet trends coming in and out of the spotlight, it’s challenging to keep up with what’s actually healthy and what’s not. Food companies market their products with fancy headlines, such as “organic,” “low-calorie,” or “vegan,” but these labels can be deceiving. Food labels hold a great deal of information, and it’s essential to understand them.

Here’s how to read food labels to better understand what you’re eating and make healthy choices for yourself and your loved ones.

Read the Ingredients List

Ingredient labels are on all foods that contain two or more ingredients. The most predominant ingredient is listed first, going in order of decreasing weight. Therefore, the ingredient listed first is the ingredient that weighs the most. Look out for preservatives and additives near the end of an ingredient list— the more unfamiliar, scientific names you see, the more additives there likely are in your food. Typically, the shorter the ingredient list, the better.

Understand the Nutrition Label

Nutrition labels contain critical health information, but the many numbers might be confusing. The first bit of information is usually the number of calories per serving. Other numbers include carbohydrates (categorized into fiber, total sugars, and added sugars), protein, and fats. These are the three main macronutrients. A nutrition label also contains sodium, which is the amount of salt, and cholesterol. At the bottom, there is a list of micronutrients, including minerals and vitamins.

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Pay Attention to Serving Sizes

Nutrition labels and calories mean nothing without the context of serving sizes. However, this number is usually small and easily missed. Serving sizes can be unrealistically small on many food items that claim to be “low-calorie” or “low fat.” In reality, the amount that the average person would eat turns out to be not-so-low-calorie at all. When choosing between different brands or food packages, pay attention to the serving sizes to get an accurate comparison.

Understand the Percent Daily Values

Percent daily values (% DV) give context to the numbers on a nutrition label. They explain the percent of macronutrients or micronutrients that a serving size contains in reference to recommended daily intakes. Generally, anything less than 5% DV is low, and anything over 20% DV is high.

Try to avoid high %DV for nutrients such as saturated fats, salt, or added sugars, and aim for high percentages for micronutrients, fiber, and proteins. However, everyone is different and requires different amounts of these nutrients, depending on their health, age, and other factors.

Be Aware of Different Types of Sugars

Just because a food doesn’t have “sugar” at the top of its ingredient list doesn’t mean it’s low in all sugars. Instead, look for different types of sweeteners and sugars, such as honey, nectar, fructose, glucose, or molasses.

Knowing what to look for is empowering for making informed decisions.

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