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Reading Food Labels for Beginners

written by Guest Blogger January 19, 2011

Editor’s Note: Many people resolved to be more healthier this year (some even developed a health plan). If leading a healthier lifestyle is new to you, today’s guest post by Jamie Lawrence will give you the ammunition you need to choose healthier foods so you can build a healthier body!

Are you concerned about high cholesterol that can lead to heart disease? Do you have to watch your sodium intake to keep your blood pressure down? Perhaps you are on a diet and counting calories. Or maybe you’ve decided to eat only organic foods.

If you’re changing your diet, or even if you just want to know what you’re eating, understanding the information provided on nutritional labels is an essential part of the process. By knowing how to read the label and put the items listed into context (concerning your whole diet), you can use the food you consume to feel good, improve health, lose weight and combat some common diseases.

Here’s how to get started with reading the labels on your food containers:

  1. Portion size. When trying to decide how much of something to eat, it helps to know the serving size. And because this affects almost every other piece of information on the nutrition label, it is listed first (often measured by volume or number of items). If you want to split the package into individual servings for easy access, it also tells you how many servings there are in a container (to save you from measuring).
  2. Calories. Next up is the listing of calories (including the number from fat). Since the nutrition label is based on a 2,000 calorie diet, this info can help you determine how much of a certain item you can afford to eat in a day (or one serving) so as to split up your caloric intake throughout the day (and avoid eating 2,000 calories worth of chips in a single sitting).
  3. Fats, sugars, and so on. The next portion of the label is devoted to fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates (including dietary fiber and sugars) and protein. You’ll notice that the amounts are listed in both grams and percentage of daily value. Most of these items should be kept to a minimum, however, higher dietary, fiber and monounsaturated fats are good, as is protein in most cases.
  4. Vitamins. This section of the label is useful, especially for those who don’t take a supplementary daily vitamin. It lists all the vitamins and minerals present in the food as well as the percent daily value. Although it won’t tell you what benefits these vitamins provide, you can reasonably assume that more vitamins in higher amounts are a good thing (since you’re unlikely to overdose on vitamins from any natural food source). If you want to know more, simply look up the vitamins in question to see what they do for your body.
  5. Daily Value. The percentage of daily value for each component on the food label is based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. Assuming you are eating approximately this many calories worth of food, you should be getting a certain amount of fats, sodium, vitamins and so on. The percentage you see listed next to each item is part of your daily total.
  6. Ingredients. The last part of the label lists the ingredients in descending order (the one listed first can be found in the greatest amounts). This is really useful if you want to determine how natural your food is (if there are a lot of ingredients you can’t pronounce, there’s a good chance your food is full of chemicals). And those seeking organic will know immediately if their food fits the bill because the word “organic” will be listed before each ingredient that qualifies.

Editor’s Note: CBC posted a handy (and fun!) interactive tool to help people read Canadian nutrition labels. For the American version of the same tool, check out the Loss Weight Diet blog.

About the Author

Jamie Lawrence writes for EPI Labelers where you can find bottle labelers and a label applicator for your packaging and promotional needs.

My favourite part of the nutritional label is the ingredients list – I choose natural! If you already read food labels habitually, which part do you always read first?

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The Natural Health Doc July 31, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Reading labels is so important and relatively easy to do. I think the most important thing to be avoiding are all the chemicals – the artificial preservatives and sweetners, etc. More and more studies are showing how toxic these chemicals are, yet the food industry continues to be allowed to use them.
The rule I tell my patients to follow is, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t put it in your body.”

Head Health Nutter August 1, 2011 at 1:20 pm

So right, NHD! That’s my rule of thumb, too. 🙂


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