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Confused by health claims on food packaging? Here’s how to know what’s in food by the label.

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It can be difficult to tell how healthy a food is just from the package. Many food manufacturers make claims that may lead you to believe a food is good for you, but those claims may be misleading.

Don’t assume a food is healthy just because the package says things like “all natural”, “a good source of fiber” or “gluten free.” The best way to decide if a food is good for you is to read the food label. Don’t just go by the marketing claims printed on the package.

“People are often confused by the health claims on food packaging. The Nutrition Facts Label and ingredients list are the best places to look for information on the nutritional quality of food. The rest of the package is simply advertising to try to get you to buy the product. If you are looking for more information on how to read and understand food labels, the Food and Drug Administration (fda.gov) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (eatright.org) have great resources and information available on their websites. You can also ask your doctor or ask for a referral to see a dietitian to discuss your nutrition questions and needs.”

-Desiree D. Lafleur, RD, LDN, Nutritional and Diabetic Education  

Here are some tips to help you make sense of all the information listed on the label.

  • Serving Size/# of Servings. The most important part of a food label is listed right at the top – the serving size and the number of servings per container. Even if the nutritional facts look good, they may be connected to a serving size that is less than you’ll actually eat. If you eat more than the serving size listed, you’ll have to adjust the nutrition facts accordingly.
  • Calories. The number of calories listed on the label is based on the listed serving size. While this number can help you manage your weight, it only helps if you are honest with yourself about how many servings you are eating.
  • Nutrients. This section includes key nutrients that may impact your health. In addition to showing actual values, information is listed as a percentage of recommended Daily Values (%DV) to help you determine if a food is high or low in a particular nutrient. This can help you find foods containing nutrients you may want to get more of (like dietary fiber, calcium and vitamins) while identifying foods with nutrients you want to limit (like trans fat or added sugars).
  • Ingredients. Although it is helpful to look at the nutrition facts on the label, it’s equally important to look at the list of ingredients to see what’s actually in the food. Ingredients are listed by quantity, from highest to lowest amount. If a food has many hard to pronounce ingredients, it may be an indication that it is overly processed. But just because you don’t recognize an ingredient name doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. Sometimes food companies list added vitamins or minerals by their scientific names (i.e., calcium pantothenate is another name for Vitamin B5).

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Date Last Reviewed: January 27, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Nora Minno, RD, CDN

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