7 things to check on every nutrition label

Choosing healthy foods just got easier. Learn to read a food label like a nutritionist.

Nutrition facts label over a granola bar

In every stage of life, the right food choices can help you feel your best. But as you get older, your ideal eating plan can change. Knowing how to eat for your current nutrition needs is important.

Your first step is to discuss your eating habits with your doctor and ask them to help you land on nutrition goals that make sense for your lifestyle and health needs. Next, read our guide to decoding nutrition labels so you can shop with confidence.

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7 Things to Check on Nutrition Labels

Serving size. This can be one of the most misleading parts of a food label. Bottled drinks are usually consumed all at once, but often the bottle technically contains two or more servings, doubling the sugar and sodium. And a pint of ice cream, which can appear small, actually contains four servings, according to the label. 

If you are counting calories or carbs, make sure to account for the amount of food you’re actually eating, advises the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). 

Calories. The more birthday candles you’ve had on your cake, the fewer calories your body burns at rest. Not exactly a welcome gift. But keeping an eye on the calories when looking at the nutrition label can help you keep tabs on your waistline.

Remember that not all calories are created equal. Many higher-calorie foods, such as legumes and nuts, are also packed with high-quality nutrition. Don’t shy away from them simply because they’re higher in calories, says AND. Instead, keep an eye on the serving size. 

Protein. Older adults need more protein than younger folks to stay strong and active. That’s because the body doesn’t absorb or metabolize amino acids — the building blocks of protein — as well as it once did, explains a review in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association

To meet your minimum daily requirements of this important nutrient, the current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adults age 50 and older is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. And it’s suggested that protein should make up between 10% and 35% of your total daily calories.

A good rule of thumb is to try to divvy up your protein between all three meals — so around 25 to 30 grams at a time. If that’s a tough target, work in a healthy snack or two each day that includes some protein. Peanut butter spread on apple slices is a good idea, as is hummus with some veggies or a hard boiled egg.

Dietary fiber. A 2019 study published in the journal Lancet found that those who eat plenty of fiber significantly cut their risk of dying from heart disease or cancer.

Processed foods tend to be lower in fiber, according to AND. Take apples and applesauce: The actual fruit has 4.4 grams of fiber, while applesauce has just 1.4 grams. And a glass of apple juice comes up completely empty on the fiber front. 

Eating high-fiber cereals or oatmeal, whole grain pastas, beans and plenty of whole fruits and vegetables can help you get to the current recommended daily amount of fiber. For men over the age of 51, that’s 30 grams. Women 51 and older should aim for 21 grams of fiber each day.

Fat. Trans fat is something you should try to avoid whenever possible. That’s because it raises your LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and lowers your “good” HDL cholesterol.

A label that lists 0 grams of trans fat may actually have up to 0.5 grams, so double-check the ingredient list for small amounts of partially hydrogenated oil or shortening before you buy.

Also take a look at the amount of saturated fat in the food. True, these fats make many of your favorite foods tasty. (Think ice cream, cheese or a juicy steak.) But they also increase your LDL cholesterol as well as your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). The AHA recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 6% of your total daily calories. 

Good-for-you fats to look for on the label will be listed as “monounsaturated” or “polyunsaturated.”

Sodium. Whether you call it sodium or salt, just know that too much of it may raise your blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease, reports the AHA. And most Americans are too heavy-handed with the salt shaker, eating more than 3,400 milligrams a day. 

Current dietary guidelines say that healthy adults should get no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. If you’re managing high blood pressure, though, the AHA recommends dropping that to 1,500 milligrams.  

You’re likely to see a lot of sodium in packaged and processed foods, especially canned goods like tomatoes and beans. It’s a good idea to buy sodium-free and low-sodium versions of your favorite foods, whenever possible. 

Total sugars. This line on the nutrition label refers to both sugars that are naturally present in the food as well as sugar that was added to the item during processing.  

The added part is so important to your health that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked manufacturers to break it out into its own line. That’s because eating too many added sugars can lead to weight gain and may increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and other health problems.

Fruits, vegetables, dairy products and whole grains all have naturally occurring sugars. Added sugars are things like white and brown sugar, honey and maple syrup. 

Current dietary guidelines encourage all of us — no matter your age or health status — to limit our added sugars to 10% of our total daily calories. For easy reference, one teaspoon of white sugar equals 4 grams of sugar. The AHA recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar a day for women, 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men. 

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Beware of the Buzzwords on the Front of the Package

Unlike the nutrition label, which is closely regulated by the FDA, the front label is like the Wild West — anything goes. Often, you’ll see catchy, healthy-sounding terms printed in big, eye-catching letters. Let that be your cue that those words are mostly there for marketing. 

Here’s what these buzzwords really mean — and what they don’t. 

Organic. This means the product contains at least 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% of the ingredients must appear on a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved list and be free of antibiotics, growth hormones and pesticides. 

It’s important to not confuse “organic” with “healthy” or even “unprocessed.” Table sugar, for example, can be organic. 

Made with organic ingredients. This means that the food is made with at least 70% organic ingredients. Check the back of the box to learn which of the ingredients are organic and which aren’t. 

Whole grain. The Whole Grains Council allows 13,000 grocery items to display one of its whole-grain stamps. The basic stamp tells you that the product contains at least 8 grams of whole grains. That means that the food could still be mostly refined grains. 

Read the label’s ingredients list to be sure. What you’re looking for, according to the USDA, are some of the following whole grains being listed first: 

  • Brown rice
  • Whole oats (or rolled oats and oatmeal)
  • Wild rice
  • Whole wheat
  • Whole-grain corn
  • Popcorn
  • Quinoa 

Natural. The FDA doesn’t have a policy about the word “natural” on a label, so seeing that word on a box doesn’t tell you much about what’s inside. Flip the package over and check out the nutrition label to get a better idea about what you’re eating.