Label Reading Tips


Nutrition can be a confusing topic, so let’s take a few minutes for a crash course in reading food labels: What food labels tell us, what to watch out for, and what to do when there isn’t a label.

 Make sure you check the weight or serving size if the package contains multiple servings. Depending on the food and how it was packaged, there may be more than one serving per container. What you and I think of as a serving and what the labelers define as a serving can be very different. For example, if you eat a whole bag of chips that contains eight servings, remember you have to multiply the calories (and everything else) by 8. Let’s get serious for a minute. If you are counting calories, calories count. There are no “Free Fridays.”  Birthday cakes DO have calories even if it’s your birthday.  And just because you may not want to look at the nutrition facts, the calories still exist!

 Now look at the calories (or energy) in each serving. General guidance is for about 2000 calories a day; your individual needs will vary based on height, age, sex, activity level, and any health problems you may have. Next, look at sodium. While essential for life, more than 2300 mg a day (about a teaspoon) can contribute to hypertension and other health issues. We do lose sodium in sweat though, so during the hot summer months or during strenuous activity it may be necessary to replace certain electrolytes like sodium, chloride, and potassium.

 Now look at ingredient labels. Did you know that there are over 60 different names for sugar that you might encounter on ingredient labels? Another surprising fact is that nearly 3 out of every 4 packaged food items will have added sugar in them. While not a complete list, here are just a few of the trickier names for “sugar:”  agave nectar, barley malt, beet sugar, cane juice crystals, caramel, carob syrup, corn sweetener, corn syrup solids, dehydrated cane juice, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice, glucose, hfcs (high-fructose corn syrup), malt syrup, maltodextrin, maltol, maltose, mannose, molasses, muscovado, panocha, rice syrup, saccharose, sucrose, sweet sorghum, treacle, and turbinado. So if you have diabetes or are just watching your waistline, you may need to become more aware!

 There is no daily amount of sugar recommended by the FDA.  However the American Heart Association indicates it is healthiest to stay under 9 teaspoons, or 38 grams, of sugar for men, and 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams, of sugar for women. Children should consume less than 3-6 teaspoons, or 12-25 grams, of any form of sugar per day.

 In addition to sugar, there are many sources of salt and fat in foods, both of which we want to limit for optimal health. Saturated fat is considered to be one of the worst offenders for heart health, so American Heart Association guidelines recommend less than 13 grams of saturated fat per day.

 Okay, so maybe you are reading labels.  Great! But what do you do when foods like fruits, vegetables, and meats come without nutrition facts labels? These food items are less likely to have added sugar, salt, or fat, so our main concern with these will be portion size and overall dietary picture. A good guideline for meat portions is that the palm of your hand is about the maximum amount of meat or protein that your body can actually use at a single meal. Choose leaner cuts of meat like chicken without skin, 90/10 ground beef, or red meat without visible fat marbling.

 A good general guideline is the US Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate. This is a simple tool that helps with planning healthy meals based on, you guessed it, a plate! Try to make half of your plate non-starchy vegetables to get more heart-healthy fiber, vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting antioxidants.

 We’re off to a good start, but there is much more to learn. Whether you have been trying for decades to eat better, or this is all new to you, please Join me, UH Samaritan Dietitian Hannah Solomon, MS, RDN, LD for “Label Reading 101”on Thursday, August 22, 2019 at 5:30 p.m.

We will meet in the UH Administrative Services Building, 663 East Main Street, Ashland, OH

Register for this FREE program by calling 419-207-2563 or email

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