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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Eating Well


Woman in grocery store reading food label10 tips for reading food labels

Melissa Bess, former Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Camden County, University of Missouri Extension


March is National Nutrition Month, so this is a good time to start making small changes to eat healthier. One of the easiest changes you can make is reading the nutrition labels on foods and beverages.


  1. Pay attention to the serving size. Is the serving size enough for your meal or snack, or will you have to eat multiple servings? To help estimate, one cup is about the size of a baseball and 3-4 ounces is about the size of a deck of cards. You may need to use a measuring cup until you can eyeball the serving size. If you eat more than the serving size listed, you will have to multiply the information on the food label by how many servings you eat.
  2. Look at the servings per container. This is especially tricky on foods that we consider to be a single serving but it’s actually more, like a can of soup, a 20 ounce drink or a frozen dinner. If the servings per container are more than one and you eat the entire container, you will have to multiply the information on the food label by how many servings you are eating. Some things we think are a single serving are actually two or more.
  3. Look at the amount of sodium. Older adults should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg a day. So if your food has 750 mg of sodium, that is half of the sodium you need in one day. Divide the amount of sodium by 1,500 to determine the percentage for that day.
  4. Make sure to look at the trans fat and saturated fat. Experts recommend that you keep these numbers as low as possible because they negatively impact heart health.
  5. Don’t forget fiber. It is recommended that we consume 25-35 grams of fiber per day. Whole grains (such as brown rice, oatmeal and 100 percent whole grain bread/pasta/cereal), fruits and vegetables are the best sources of fiber so choose more of these foods.
  6. Get enough vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. Those are the required vitamins and minerals on a label, but there also may be additional ones listed. The closer those percentages are to 20 percent, the better. Higher than 20 percent is even healthier.
  7. Only certain populations should pay attention to cholesterol and carbohydrates. If your physician has told you to limit cholesterol, you should look at that number. Those with diabetes should pay attention to the total carbohydrate number. Others do not need to worry too much about those numbers.
  8. Look in two places for the amount of sugar. You can look both on the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list. For a more visual representation, divide the grams of sugar by four to get the amount in teaspoons. Look in the ingredient list for corn syrup, anything with the word “sugar” or things that end in “ose” as those indicate sugar. The closer to the top of the list, the more sugar that food has.
  9. Protein needs are based on gender, weight and activity levels. Generally speaking, about 20 grams or so of protein per meal is appropriate. Use the labels to see how much protein you are getting.
  10. When deciding between two similar foods, compare the nutrition labels. For instance, when deciding between skim milk and 2% milk, compare the nutrients listed such as total fat, calories, sugar, fiber, protein and vitamins/minerals.


Food labels provide a wealth of information for consumers — use them to choose healthy foods at the store.


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Last update: Monday, March 06, 2017