You already know that reading nutrition labels leads to healthier food choices. That’s, well, the obvious part. But what exactly is a label-reader scanning? Start by eyeballing these six biggies, suggests Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, clinical associate professor at UNC Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “Looking at one thing alone isn’t enough,” says Dr. Hobbs. “You’re considering the big picture, to make smarter choices.” Program this sequence into your brain to start label-reading like a pro.
1. Portion Size, Calories Per Serving.
Assess immediately how many servings you’ll likely have at one time—is it a condiment, a dessert, or something you’ll eat multiple good-size portions of? Then view calories per serving. Considering the likely number of total servings, gauge what portion of your daily calorie budget the food fills. (Find your suggested caloric intake with this American Heart Association tool.)
2. Nutrition Facts: Saturated Fat.
Dart your eyes to this box next. Saturated fat is associated with higher heart-disease risk. If the amount per serving reads double digits, strongly consider putting the food back. “It’s okay to eat a dish of ice cream or a frozen pizza occasionally, but these foods should not be staples,” says Dr. Hobbs.
3. Nutrition Facts: Dietary Fiber.
Next peruse fiber per serving. If the amount’s hefty, more than 6g per serving, that’s a good indication you’re holding a healthier food. Look for at least 4g of fiber. Whole breads and cereals (made with whole wheat or whole grains), and foods containing fresh fruit or vegetable ingredients tend to be fiber-rich.
4. Nutrition Facts: Vitamins, Minerals.
Seek double digits here. Look for substantial sources of vitamins (including A, C, and the B’s) and minerals (including calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium). Avoid empty calories, or foods offering little nutritional bang for the calorie buck.
5. Nutrition Facts: Salt & Sugar.
Remember American Heart Association’s current recommendation of 1,500 mg of sodium daily when scanning. Sugar data is less clear-cut, appearing as many different words. It’s also hard to tease added sugars from natural sugars (that found in unprocessed, whole foods including fruit, vegetables, and milk). Take-Home: Choose foods lowest in added sugars.
6. Ingredient List, Order.
The shorter the better. Avoid artificial flavoring and coloring, preservatives, and other synthetics, including high fructose corn syrup. Foods containing these are junky. Order of ingredients also matters. What tops the list is what the food mostly consists of. For cereal, look for whole grains to appear first; for juice, 100 percent fruit juice (meaning no sugar added).
What are we forgetting? Tell us what else You scan labels for to keep food choices smart! Do you stash cheat sheets in your wallet, or store them on your phone?