A Dietitian’s Guide to Understanding Food Labels

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The United States Food and Drug Administration requires nutrition labels to be placed on most packaged foods and beverages. The label details the serving size, calories, ingredients and other nutritional information.

Often, when people read a food label, they focus on the number of calories listed. But it’s important to understand that not all calories are created equally.

“Calories don’t mean everything. It’s important to look at where the calories come from, specifically on the ingredients list. And also remember, the fewer ingredients
the better,” said Hannah Gilliland, RD, an outpatient dietitian at Archbold Memorial Hospital.

Gilliland recommends that when reading a food label, you should look at the sugar and sodium.

“Focus on finding foods that are low in added sugars and low in sodium,” said Gilliland. “Also use caution with foods that contain ingredients with more complex names, specifically sodium nitrates, hydrogenated oils and carrageenan.”

When trying to find the healthiest options, read the first three ingredients. Since the ingredients are listed in the order of quantity used, if those first three ingredients include refined grains, sugar or hydrogenated oils, or if the ingredients list is longer than three lines, it suggests that the product is highly processed, which isn’t a recommended choice for a healthy diet.

When grocery shopping, the safest bet is to stick to the perimeter of the store.


“The deli counter, produce, dairy and most whole foods are found on the perimeter of the store,” said Gilliland. “The whole grains will be on the inside aisle, but the less processed food that contain the most nutrients will be found on the perimeter.”

Organic options at the grocery don’t differ that much from the other options. The only difference is the way the product is grown. There may be a difference when the outer part of the food is ingested. For example, organic bananas are not that different from regular bananas, but organic apples may have slightly more vitamins and nutrients in the peel than regular apples. In any case, there is not enough difference to be significant.

Gilliland cautions shopping for foods with bold claims on the packaging. For example, ‘multigrain’ products may sound healthy, but this simply means that the product includes more than one type of grain. It doesn’t mean that the product is whole grain. ‘Made with whole grains’ can be included on packaging even if the whole grains added are in an insignificant amount. When buying these products, double check that the product is actually what it claims to be by reading the food label.

The best way to avoid processed and unhealthy foods is to stick with foods that have the fewest ingredients listed, or find foods with no label at all, like fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce section since these are whole foods which are best for the body.

For recipes that incorporate healthy foods, visit https://archbold.org/live-better-recipes.