Decoding Food Labels: How to Make Informed Choices at the Grocery Store

When you stroll down the aisles of your local grocery store, you’re bombarded with various food products, each fighting for your attention. Amidst the colorful packaging and enticing claims, it can be challenging to make healthy choices. That’s where understanding food labels or the nutrition facts label comes in handy. This guide will show you how to decode food labels and make informed decisions that align with your nutritional goals.

Understanding food labels or the nutrition facts label comes in handy.

Understanding food labels or the nutrition facts label comes in handy.
Photo credit: Adobe Stock, Stillfx

1. Start with the Serving Size

The first step in understanding a food label is to look at the serving size. This tells you about the portion for which the nutrition information is provided. Be mindful of this because the nutritional values must be adjusted accordingly if you consume more or less than the serving size. It’s important to realize that all the nutrient amounts shown on the nutrition facts label, including the number of calories, refer to the serving size. This is not a recommendation on how much you should eat or drink. The serving size only reflects the amount that people typically eat or drink.

2. Check the Calories

The calorie counts per serving on a nutrition facts label indicate the energy a particular portion of food provides. It’s essential to be mindful of your daily calorie needs. Understanding the calorie content of foods helps you balance your daily calorie intake to help support your health and nutritional goals. Whether you’re trying to maintain, gain, or lose weight, monitoring your calorie intake is critical to achieving your desired outcomes. While calories are necessary, it is also essential to prioritize nutrient-dense foods. Using the information on food labels will help you make balanced and mindful choices about your diet, meeting your nutritional needs while managing your calorie intake effectively.

3. Examine the Nutrients

Now, let’s dive into the nutrients listed on the label. Keys to focus on include:

  1. Fats
    • Total Fat is the combined amount of all fats present in the food, including saturated fats, trans fats, and unsaturated fats. Saturated and trans fats are considered less healthy and can increase the risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats are more nutritious and can benefit heart health when consumed in moderation.
    • When reading nutrition labels, aim for lower amounts of saturated and trans fats and prioritize foods with higher amounts of unsaturated fats such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in foods like fish, nuts, and seeds.
  2. Cholesterol
    • Cholesterol is a type of fat found in animal products. High cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease. While some cholesterol is necessary for bodily functions, it’s important to monitor intake.
    • Look for foods with lower cholesterol content, especially if you’re trying to manage your cholesterol levels. Opt for lean protein sources and limit consumption of high-cholesterol foods like fatty meats and full-fat dairy products.
  3. Carbohydrates
    • Total Carbohydrates represent the combined amount of all carbohydrates in the food, including sugars, dietary fiber, and starches. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary energy source, but not all carbs are created equal.
  4. Protein
    • Protein is essential for building and repairing tissues, including muscles, bones, and skin. Consuming enough protein is necessary to support overall health and well-being.
    • Aim for a balanced protein intake from various sources, including lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, and seeds.
  5. Vitamins and Minerals
    • Some labels list vitamins and minerals as a percentage of the daily recommended intake (%DV). Aim for products with higher values of essential nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamins.

4. Beware of Added Sugars and Sodium

Keep an eye out for hidden sugars and excessive sodium. Look for terms like “high fructose corn syrup” and “sodium nitrate” in the ingredient list. Overeating saturated fat and sodium can lead to an increased risk of developing some health conditions, like cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Consuming too much added sugar can make it hard to meet essential nutrient needs while staying within caloric limits. Limiting these can benefit your health in the long term. For example, when a label “includes” before Added Sugars is on the label, this means that Added Sugars are included in the product’s total number of grams of sugars.

A container of yogurt.

A container of yogurt.

This means the container of yogurt has seven grams of added sugars and eight grams of naturally occurring sugars with a total of 15 grams of sugar.

5. Understand Ingredient Lists

The ingredient list is a list of information. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so the first few are the most prominent in the product. Look for whole, recognizable ingredients and be cautious of long lists filled with artificial additives and preservatives.

6. Use Percent Daily Values (%DV) Wisely

Percent Daily Values (%DV) help you know how serving that food contributes to your daily nutrient intake in high or low in nutrients. A general rule of thumb is that 5% DV or less is considered low, while 20% DV or more is high. Use these percentages to assess the nutritional impact quickly. It is best to choose foods with higher %DV for dietary fiber, vitamin D, Calcium, iron, and protein and foods with lower %DV for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.

7. Compare Products

When faced with similar products, please take a moment to compare their labels. This will help you choose the one that aligns best with your health goals, whether lower in sugar, higher in fiber, or richer in essential nutrients.

8. Watch for Marketing Tricks

Finally, be cautious of marketing claims like “natural,” “low-fat,” or “organic.” These terms can sometimes be misleading. Always refer to the actual nutrition label for the most accurate information.

6. Special Dietary Needs

If you have specific dietary requirements or restrictions, such as gluten-free, vegan, or allergen-free, scan the label for relevant certifications and allergen warnings. Armed with these tips, you’re better equipped to navigate the grocery store confidently. Remember that making informed choices is crucial to maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet. So, take a moment to read those food labels, and you’ll be well on your way to a healthier and happier you. Happy shopping!


  1. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2024, March 5). How to understand and use the nutrition facts label. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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