How to Read a Nutrition Label in 3 Steps


When I was little, instead of reading the funnies while I ate breakfast, or sitting glued to the morning cartoons, I’d read every inch of the box of cereal I was eating for breakfast. What can I say? I was interested in label reading at an early age! I don’t know what was so appealing to me about it so young, but it’s clear that even as a kid I was a label reader who wanted to know about the food I was eating. When so much of our food comes packaged and processed, it is essential to train yourself to be a label reader too. There are confusing marketing gimmicks, health claims, and food rating systems that can turn even the most savvy label reader cross eyed, so here is my three step guide for label reading:

Step 1: Start at the ingredient list and really get to know what ingredients are in there. Can you recognize them? Pronounce them? If you don’t know what’s actually in your food, why would you want to put it in your body? Also, how long is the ingredient list? If your simple cereal or crackers has a mile-long list of unrecognizable ingredients (Xanthan gum? Sodium bisulfite?), perhaps it is time to put it down and pick up a less processed food. As much as possible, I try to choose foods with ingredients I not only recognize, but would also have in my own kitchen.

Step 2: If your food passed the ingredient test, look to the serving size next. How many times have you eaten a snack bag of chips only to discover it contained two servings instead of one? Or have you ever sipped a calorie containing beverage that had not one serving per bottle but 2.5? None of the nutrition information will be accurate if you’re eating more than the recommended serving size. Instead you’ll have to double or triple (or more) the nutrition facts panel to match the quantity you’re eating.

Step 3: Now you can scan the nutrition facts panel. I usually look at the fiber, protein, and sodium content first, depending on the product, since I usually want the fiber and protein to be high, and the sodium to be low. If I’m picking a cereal, for example, I aim for one with five or more grams of fiber. If I’m deciding between granola bars, I’ll look at protein first to find one that will satisfy me. Calories do count, of course, but you want them to be high quality calories from nutritious ingredients.

Another label reading tip is to choose more foods that don’t require a nutrition label to begin with! We can all benefit from a diet that includes more foods that are the ingredients, like fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

What do you look at first when you read a label?

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