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10 Things on a Food Label You Shouldn't Ignore

By Christopher Mohr, PhD, RD ; Updated July 27, 2016

Calories, protein, carbohydrates… and ingredients you sometimes can’t even pronounce.

Nutrition facts labels on food packages offer a wealth of insight into what actually went into making each product. And these labels can help you make better-informed food choices -- if you know what to pay attention to.

Though this information will change a bit -- nutrition labels are getting a makeover -- let’s discuss their current state.

Here are 10 things on a food label you shouldn’t ignore.

1. Serving Size

You won't want to overlook the serving size information. “This is certainly not something to ignore,” according to Jim White, RD, owner of Jim White Fitness Studios in Virginia Beach. “A bag of chips may be two servings when many think it’s just one, so [consumers] may be getting more than they bargained for.”

To know exactly how much of a product you should be eating in one sitting, pay attention to how many servings are in a package.

2. Trans Fat

Trans fat has been listed under Total Fat on food labels since 2006. Because of the known health concerns with trans fats, companies rightly started removing them from their foods.

However, what the consumer may not know is a product is allowed to say “0 grams” of trans fat even though there may be some in there. Labeling laws allow any product that has 0.5 grams or less of an ingredient to say “0.”

Therefore, rather than simply glancing at the label and looking for the trans fat amount, look at the ingredients list and see if the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” are listed.

3. Fiber

Carbohydrates often get demonized, but they’re certainly important for optimal health.

And along this vein, the fiber content within the total carbohydrate number is important. Most Americans are getting about 1/3 of the total fiber needed, so aiming for at least 5 grams of fiber per serving of a carbohydrate-based food (bread, cereal, pasta, etc.) is wise.

4. Protein

We don’t need to be protein-obsessed, but having protein in packaged foods is smart. Research suggests protein helps fill us up while building and repairing muscle. You’ll want to aim for 5 to 10 grams of protein in the packaged foods you eat.

5. Ingredients List

A quick scan of the nutrition label offers a snapshot of what’s in the product. The ingredients list below it, however, spells things out more clearly. This list allows you to see exactly which ingredients were used to make the product.

You’ll want to be wary of lengthy lists chock-full of words you can’t pronounce, as these usually indicate the inclusion of additives.

6. The Order of Ingredients

You’ll also want to pay attention to the order in which the ingredients are listed.

The order of appearance corresponds to the total quantity within the product. For example, say an ingredient list on a food label was: sugar, whole grains, vitamin E. This would tell you that within that product, there is the most sugar, then whole grains and finally vitamin E.

Try to opt for products that display beneficial, nutritious ingredients at the very top of the list.

7. Heart Healthy

Food manufacturers can’t simply write any marketing jargon they want on their foods. Instead, they must apply for approved food labels and show that there are scientific studies to support their label claims.

The “heart healthy” label is an example; companies can legally include this label if the food is low in saturated fat and sodium. It should also have no trans fats and should contain at least 0.6 grams of soluble fiber per serving.

8. Low-Sodium

The low-sodium label indicates that a serving of food contains 140 milligrams of sodium or less. While the recommended sodium intake is 2300 milligrams per day, Americans average up to two times more than that.

To help reduce your daily sodium intake, opt for foods with low-sodium labels whenever possible.

9. Organic

There’s certainly a growing trend and popularity for organic foods. Does this mean that our diets need to be 100% organic? Certainly not. But for those interested in choosing organic foods, this label ensures that the product you’re purchasing is actually organic.

10. Whole Grain

The “100% whole grain” stamp indicates that a food contains a full serving or more of whole grains per serving, while the “whole grain” stamp appears on products containing at least half a serving of whole grain per serving.

To ensure you’re eating enough whole grains, you’ll want to check that the grains you eat have these stamps.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you look at nutrition facts labels when buying food? Which part of the label do you glance at first? Have you ever not purchased something because of what you saw on the label?

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