Understanding Food Labels

By: Co+op

Choosing new foods and flavors for your family can be fun. But when faced with a shelf full of look-alike cans and packages, do you know how to identify the foods that best fit into your balanced diet? If not, learning your way around a Nutrition Facts label can help. Here's what to look for:

  • Servings per package and serving size, which is important info for comparison shopping (and might keep us from eating that entire pint of ice cream in one sitting)
  • Calorie count per serving and the number of those calories that come from fat (all the figures on the label are based on a 2,000-calorie adult diet)
  • The "bad boys," handily grouped together: saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium (the lower the numbers for these, the better)
  • Total carbs and sugar counts, given in grams and percentages of your daily value to help you stay in a healthy range
  • Nutrient listings for vitamins and minerals (vitamin A, calcium, vitamin C, protein, and iron) and dietary fiber—daily values are given, but in general, higher is better here. If a product has 5% or less of these items, it's considered low, and 20% or more is high.

It’s also a good idea to scan the label for artificial ingredients and sneaky sweeteners (like high-fructose corn syrup), as well as food allergens (depending on who’s coming to dinner). The USDA requires that the eight most common allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat) be clearly listed.

Additional labels to seek out include the USDA Organic Seal, the Fair Trade Certified label, the Certified Humane label, Country of Origin Labels (COOL), and of course, any labels added by the co-op to highlight local products.

Do you read food labels, or do you rely on other methods (like selecting specific brands) for healthful choices?