Shop smart with the nutrition facts food label

Published 11:08 am Sunday, June 2, 2019

Often, we are told to eat healthy and to choose healthy foods. For some, that may be a difficult task if we are uncertain what foods are good or best for our bodies. Learning how to understand the nutrition facts food label can help you make better choices and reduce your risk of chronic disease and obesity.

The food label lists nutrients that are good for us and nutrients that we want to avoid and/or limit. Choose foods that are low in saturated fats, trans-fat, sodium and added sugars. Added sugars are those not naturally found in foods, and are now listed on the nutrition facts food label (below Total Sugars).
Find foods with good sources of calcium, vitamin D, iron and potassium. Foods with 1-3 grams of fiber are good sources of fiber, and foods with greater than 4 grams are excellent sources of fiber. Fiber can help improve blood sugars, cholesterol and weight. Fiber can also help prevent overeating because it can help you feel full. Getting adequate fiber in your diet can also help prevent constipation. If you are increasing your fiber intake, be sure to drink at least eight cups of water (unless otherwise stated by your doctor).

When looking at a nutrition facts label, first look at the portion size and servings per container. Often, food packages can be misleading and include more than one serving. Look at the serving size to learn how much you should have. If you have more than one serving, then you need to double the amount of calories and nutrients. For example, if a serving is only a ½ cup and you proceed to eat one cup, then you just ate two servings. You would need to multiply the total calories and other nutrients by two.

The % Daily Value (%DV) can be found on the right hand side of the food label when you are looking at it. My patients often tell me that they are uncertain what these percentages mean. The %DV is a reference based off of a person eating 2,000 calories per day. You may need more or less calories per day. As a general rule, foods with 5% or less are low in that nutrient, 10-15% are moderate in that nutrient, and 20% or more is high in that nutrient. Eating foods with a %DV of 5% or less would be optimal for nutrients we want to limit in our diets. Choose foods that are 5% or less in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. If a food item provides 25% of your sodium needs for the day, then this food item would not be a good choice. Choose foods that have high percentages of calcium, iron, vitamin D, fiber and potassium.

If you’re trying to reduce sodium in your diet, look for foods with 140 milligrams of sodium or less. Getting enough potassium in your diet can aid in blood pressure control and decease risk of a heart attack and stroke. Look for foods with high amounts of potassium unless otherwise stated by your doctor.

The ingredients list is another part of the nutrition facts label that can provide useful information. Food items are listed in order by weight. This means that the first ingredient listed has the largest amount of that ingredient, and the last item listed has the lowest amount of that ingredient.

Food manufacturers can state 0 grams of trans-fats on the food label if the food contains less than 0.5 grams per serving. The only way to learn if a food item contains trans-fats is to look at the ingredients list. Look for “partially hydrogenated oils” or “hydrogenated oils” to learn if a food item contains 0.5 grams or less of trans-fats. Trans-fats can increase your bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease good cholesterol (HDL). Fried foods, baked goods, some frozen prepared foods, cookies and crackers are some foods that contain trans-fats. It is best to limit or avoid these foods.

Be sure to vary your diet and consume balanced meals. Include fresh or frozen vegetables, fruits and whole grains in your diet, from 100% whole wheat or grain bread, rice, pasta and cereals. Choose lean sources of protein, such as poultry, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, eggs and soy products. Choose low fat milk and yogurt products.

Remember, these recommendations are for an average healthy adult. Always follow any dietary restrictions that are recommended by your doctor.

Heather Eads, RD, LDN, is a clinical dietitian at Vidant Beaufort Hospital and can be reached at or 252-948-4937.