Food Labels

Imagine this sign on a display of 20-ounce sodas: “You have to run for 30 minutes to burn off the 240 calories in this beverage.” Would it make you pause before buying one? Researchers tried it, and purchases by teens went down by half. What if the soda’s label said it contained 16 teaspoons of sugar? Would that make you stop and think?

Instead, the fronts of food packages have all sorts of symbols, health claims, and endorsements. Sometimes they advertise one good ingredient like fiber, but don’t mention that it’s buried in a food full of sugar and fat. Or they say they have no trans fats, or no fructose–but they’re loaded with other unhealthy ingredients. It’s so misleading that some experts think front-of-package health claims should be banned.

The information on the Ingredients List and Nutrition Facts is more reliable. But it can fool you, too. At a glance that soup-in-a-bowl seems to be low in calories and salt. It’s packaged as a single serving that you microwave and eat. But if you read the label more carefully, it’s marked as 2 servings, so you’ll get twice the calories and salt listed when you heat and eat it.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed the first major changes to the Nutrition Facts since they came out 20 years ago. They should be an improvement. For example:

  • The number of servings and calories will be in much bigger type.
  • Portion sizes will be more realistic.
    • The label on an 8, 12, or 20-ounce soda will list its total calories and nutrients instead of dividing it into serving sizes that most people ignore.
    • A pint of ice cream will have 2 columns, one with the data for a 1 cup serving, and another for the whole pint since some people eat it all at once. Currently it lists calories and nutrients in a 1/2 cup serving.

But those changes won’t happen for at least 2 years. Meanwhile, we have tips to help you scan food labels for the facts you need to buy and eat healthy foods in healthy amounts.


Scan the list to check for:

  • What are the first few ingredients? They’re listed by weight. If sugar or white flour is high on the list it’s usually a bad sign.
  • Are there more than a few ingredients? The more there are, the more processed the food is. That means the further it is from a plant or animal source–usually not a good thing.
  • Is it really whole wheat? If so, you won’t see other types of wheat or flour.
  • Are there ingredients you want to avoid? For example, you might want to check the list for :
    • Multiple forms of sugar like fructose, honey, molasses, or corn syrup
    • Preservatives, food coloring, and other additives
    • Ingredients that may cause allergic reactions like milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, fish, soy, or wheat


  1. Notice the serving size! It’s likely to be smaller than the amount you’ll eat. It’s at the top of the Nutrition Facts table, along with the number of servings in the package. Don’t assume the numbers you see are for the entire container. Most list multiple servings even if hardly anyone eats in those amounts.
  2. Multiply by the number of servings you’ll eat or drink. Until the new labels come out you’ll have to do the math. That 20-ounce soda has about 100 calories per serving. Since the container has 2.5 servings, you’ll get about 250 calories if you drink the whole thing.
  3. Figure out the numbers you want to shoot for. Use the Daily Food Plan at to find out how many calories you need to maintain your current weight, or to get to a healthier weight. Inactive or older people usually burn 1600 calories a day. Active people and teenagers may burn up to 2800 calories or more a day.Divide those calories into meals and snacks. Say you burn about 1800 calories per day, and your goal is not to gain weight. You decide you want to eat about 400 calories for breakfast, 500 for lunch, 200 for snacks, and 700 for dinner. That 20-ounce, 250-calorie cola will blow your calorie budget fast. How about an ice tea or cup of coffee instead?
  4. Check the fats. (Remember to multiply by the number of servings you’ll actually eat or drink.)
    – Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthier than other types. But even they can lead to weight gain if you eat too much.
    – Saturated fat can raise your cholesterol level and clog your blood vessels. Go easy on it.
    – Trans fat is even worse. Try not to eat foods that contain trans fat.
  5. Keep an eye on cholesterol. High blood levels of cholesterol can lead to heart disease and stroke. The food you eat is only one factor in blood levels, but it’s good to stay under 300 mg a day.
  6. Limit sodium. Most of the sodium (salt) in your diet is hidden inside foods, not from salt you add at the table. Try to eat less than 2400 mg each day, or less if your provider says you should. Fruits and veggies have almost no sodium.
  7. Look for healthy foods that are high in fiber.

Dietary Fiber is listed under Total Carbohydrate.

  • High-fiber foods help to fill you up, keep your cholesterol levels and weight down, and prevent constipation. Try to eat 20 to 35 grams of fiber every day.
  • Many high-fiber foods are healthy plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains.
  • But some junk foods have added fiber to make them seem better. Eating a lot of added sugar and fat with your fiber is not progress.

There’s more good information available in Nutrition Facts, but keeping track of serving size, calories, fats, cholesterol, sodium, and fiber is a great start. And don’t forget the Ingredients list–it can help you avoid foods that have a large proportion of unhealthy ingredients or ones you’re allergic to.


  1. Proposed Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. ion/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm#Summary.
  2. Revised Food Labels Still Won’t Tell Whole Story.
  3. New F.D.A. Nutrition Labels Would Make ‘Serving Sizes’ Reflect Actual Servings.
  4. How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. .htm.
  5. The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Panel.