Navigating Healthy Choices Using Nutrition Labels

What is a Nutrition Label?

Nutrition labels are essential informational tools found in most packaged foods. Their primary purpose is to provide consumers with detailed information about the nutritional components of a product, which facilitates healthy choices when buying packaged foods. The fundamental objective of nutrition labels is to enable consumers to understand and evaluate the nutritional composition of a food product. This information helps grocery buyers make informed choices about their consumption and follow a balanced diet.

To make the most of the information on nutrition labels, it is important to understand where to find each essential element. Each tag follows the same format, so if you can remember where the information is located, this will help you navigate the label every time. Here is a brief description of the standard components you will find on the labels:

  • Servings per container specify the amount servings each package contains. Eating the whole package at once, means multiplying each value by the number of servings per container.
  • Serving Size: Indicates the size of the serving used to calculate nutritional values. Usually listed by volume (for example, a serving size of one cup) or by weight in grams or ounces.
  • Total Carbohydrates shows the total amount of carbohydrates, including sugars and fiber.
  • Percent Daily Value: Indicates how much of the product contributes to the recommended daily amount of a nutrient.
  • Sodium: The amount of salt in a serving.
  • Saturated Fat: The amount of saturated fat in a serving.
  • Fiber: Indicates the amount of dietary fiber present in a serving.
  • Added Sugar: Shows the amounts of sugars added to the product per serving.

More on Daily Values

An important component of nutritional labels is the percentage of the daily value (% DV) displayed next to each nutrient. These daily values are based on a standard diet of 2,000 calories a day, which is used as a reference. For example, if a label shows that a product has 10% of the total daily fat value, it means that a portion contributes 10% of the recommended daily amount of fat for a 2,000-calorie diet. While not everyone follows a diet of exactly 2,000 calories per day, % DV’s can be a valuable tool for determining how much of a certain element a food contains. They may help you determine whether or not the food is considered high or low in that element.

Exploring Types of Fats

Fat is an essential energy source, containing twice as much energy as carbohydrates and proteins. Therefore, our body requires some fat every day. Three types of fat fall into two groups: less healthy fats and more healthy fats.

Saturated fats and trans fats: These are less healthy fats and are often called “bad fats.” These fats raise LDL cholesterol (aka bad cholesterol) and increase a person’s risk of developing heart disease. Saturated fats are usually found in butter, cheese, milk, ice cream, and meats. Trans fats can also occur naturally in these products, but they are also found in certain types of specially treated vegetable oils like margarine and some types of cookies, crackers, fried foods, and processed snacks.

Unsaturated fats: These are healthier and often referred to as “good fats” because they don’t raise LDL cholesterol levels like saturated fats do. Foods rich in unsaturated fats include vegetable oils, nuts, and fish. Unsaturated fats can raise levels of HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), which can protect your cardiovascular system.

Exploring Sugar Types

There are two main types of sugars. Natural sugars occur naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy. Added sugars are added during processing, such as in soft drinks, sweets and baked goods. Added sugars contribute to calories but do not have essential nutrients the body processes.

You do not need to avoid sugar altogether. It is best to choose products low in added sugars. A rule of thumb to keep your consumption of added sugars low is if the sugar content per 100 grams is greater than 15 grams, make sure the added sugar (or alternative names for added sugar) is not on the ingredient list. Other names for added sugar include dextrose, fructose, glucose, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, powdered sugar, or raw sugar.

Food label for Colorful Turkey Stuffed Peppers

Colorful Turkey Stuffed Peppers Label

How to Use Labels to Choose Appropriate Foods

As consumers, we are becoming more health conscious than ever before. Therefore, understanding how to read these labels will help us make healthier food choices. You can use food labels to support your personal dietary needs; look for foods or products that contain more nutrients and less of the nutrients you want to limit. When it comes to making healthy choices and navigating a grocery store, here are some general guidelines:

  • Focus on eating in moderation by eating proper portion sizes. Measure out a serving based on the serving size listed.
  • Eat more foods with more fiber than carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Foods rich in vitamins and minerals, such as legumes and fresh foods, are good to prioritize when shopping.
  • Eating fewer foods with empty calories, such as sugary drinks and ultra-processed snacks, is recommended. Empty calories mean there is no real nutritional benefit to eating the food, and most calories just come from added sugars.
  • Eating fewer foods with high levels of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars, such as fast foods and heavily processed products, is recommended.

How to Use a Label to Follow a Healthy Diet for Chronic Diseases

Using nutrition labels can be a comprehensive tool in choosing the healthiest options for snacks and meals to manage every chronic disease. Look at the serving size first — eating in moderation is the key to healthy eating, especially for a person with a chronic illness and all the information on the label is based on the serving size.


Diabetes is a chronic condition that causes blood sugar levels to be higher than normal. Everything we eat or drink in a day affects the blood sugar level, so for a person with diabetes, it is very important to understand how to keep blood sugar levels within the recommended range to manage diabetes properly.

Pay specific attention to the amount of carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the nutrient that has the most significant and fastest effect on raising your blood sugar. The American Diabetes Association recommends that a person with diabetes eat snacks containing 5-30 grams of carbohydrates in total, and for meals, for a man between 45-60 grams and a woman between 30-45 grams in total. For example, on the label above, one size contains 15 grams of total carbohydrates, which means it is a perfect for a snack for a person with diabetes.

Also, focus on the amount of protein: Proteins do not raise blood sugar and take longer to digest in the body. This means that proteins can slow down the rise in your blood sugar if you eat it in combination with carbohydrates. For this reason, try to choose options with more protein. For a person with diabetes, the recommendation for protein is the same as the general population– protein should consist of 10-35% of your daily caloric intake or 1-1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. For example, a person who is 150 pounds or 68 kg, should eat between 68-102 grams of protein each day. You can easily divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms and determine your recommended grams of protein.

Include healthy fats in moderation in your diet: Fats take longer to digest in the stomach, which can leave you feeling full for longer, but insulin resistance can increase (which can worsen diabetes control) if consumed very often. The body needs fats to function. The best options are unsaturated fats like olive or avocado oil. Unsaturated fats are not listed on a label; however, saturated fats are, and for a person with diabetes, it is important to eat appropriate portions of saturated fats. The goal is to eat less than 10% of your daily caloric intake in saturated fat. For example, a person who eats 2,000 calories should limit saturated fat to 20 grams in total per day. Or you may be unsure exactly how many calories you consume a day. In that case, foods that contain more than 20% of the Daily Value of saturated fats are considered foods high in saturated fats, and foods that have 5% or less are considered foods low in saturated fats.

Cardiovascular Diseases

Following a heart-healthy diet has many benefits for anyone. It can help a person with conditions such as hypertension or high blood pressure, heart failure, and stroke, control the progression of the disease and prevent future complications. The most famous diets are the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension Diet (DASH) and the Mediterranean Diet. The two approaches focus on a diet full of whole foods, low in saturated fat, and low in sodium because these are critical factors in a heart-healthy diet.

Focus on limiting saturated fat: Saturated fats can increase your LDL or “bad” cholesterol level in the body, increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease. Most animal products, such as butter or meat, contain naturally saturated fats. The American Heart Association recommends a 13-gram serving of total saturated fat daily to follow a heart healthy diet.

Focus on the saturated fat content rather than cholesterol: There is a lot of contradictory information in the news about cholesterol. It is necessary to understand that there is a difference between cholesterol in food (dietary cholesterol) and cholesterol in the body (blood cholesterol). Dietary cholesterol does not necessarily increase the level of cholesterol in the blood. Still saturated fats do increase the level of bad cholesterol in the blood and usually products with more saturated fat also contain more dietary cholesterol. That is why it’s more important to follow the recommendations on saturated fats and eat a whole-food based diet to lower your blood cholesterol. “Bad” cholesterol or LDL cholesterol may increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Limiting salt or sodium is essential to eating a heart-healthy diet: Excessive sodium consumption increases the amount of blood in the blood vessels, which increases blood pressure, and the heart has to work harder to pump blood through the body. High blood pressure puts a person at greater risk for stroke, heart failure, and other cardiovascular complications. Many canned or packaged products contain more salt due to processing, so reading labels and choosing low-sodium options is very important. The recommendation for sodium is less than 2,300 mg each day.

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)

Healthy eating is integral to managing chronic kidney disease. The kidneys are in charge of cleaning the body’s blood by eliminating waste and extra fluids from the body. Eating a healthy diet for the kidneys means that the kidneys do not have to work as hard to remove waste, which can help prevent or delay the development of chronic kidney disease (CKD). A balanced diet focusing on whole foods, the DASH diet, or a diet that focuses on vegetables instead of meat can benefit kidney health.

When reading a nutrition label to follow a diet healthy for the kidneys, focus on the mineral potassium at the bottom of the label: Many people with CKD have a higher risk of having levels of potassium outside of the normal range (levels too high or levels too low). It is necessary to manage the potassium level in the body because it is an essential mineral. Depending on your situation, you may need to lower or increase the amount of potassium in your diet. A high potassium food usually has 200 mg or more per serving size. For example, avocados, carrots, lentils, and beef usually contain more potassium. On the other hand, low potassium food contains less than 200 mg per serving size, for example, apples, cucumbers, rice, and pasta.

In addition, it can be important to limit the mineral of phosphorous in the diet to manage CKD: Unfortunately, phosphorous is not usually listed on a nutrition fact label, but usually, foods that are high in calcium also contain high amounts of phosphorous, and calcium is usually listed on the label with the vitamins and minerals. Talk with your doctor to find the recommended range for calcium in your diet as each person with CKD has different needs.

Other considerations for managing CKD are salt/sodium and protein consumption: Generally, following the recommendation of eating less than 2,300 mg per day of sodium/salt will have many health benefits for kidney function as well. For protein, talking with your situation is important. For some with CKD it is necessary to limit protein intake while others need to increase their intake, usually if they are on dialysis.

Nutrition Labels: Final Thoughts

Reading nutrition fact labels is essential in navigating how to eat healthily, which every person should learn to do. Each section of the label gives important information that can be used to make better decisions in choosing the healthiest option for your body and your own health needs. If you are managing a chronic disease, nutrition labels can be useful tools in understanding how certain foods may affect your body. Nutrition labels are put on foods to help consumers know what we are spending our money on and what we are putting into our bodies. By learning to read and understand nutrition labels, you can make healthier choices and take control of your diet. At the end of the day, a balanced and conscious diet contributes significantly to a healthier and more active life. Navigate nutritional labels with confidence and take care of your well-being!



Originally published 11/23

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

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