How to Properly Read Food Labels

By Dr Olivia Naturals Support • June 12, 2024

Reading food labels can be daunting, especially if you have specific dietary needs or food allergies. However, understanding how to interpret these labels is crucial for making informed decisions about what you consume. This guide will walk you through the essential steps of reading food labels, ensuring you can spot allergens, identify ingredient concentrations, and make healthier choices.

Understanding Food Labels

Food labels are designed to provide consumers with important information about the contents of the product. These labels typically include:

  • Ingredients List: A detailed list of all the ingredients used in the product.
  • Nutritional Information: Information about the nutritional content, including calories, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Allergen Information: Details about common allergens that might be present in the product.

Step-by-Step Guide to Reading Food Labels

1. Check for Allergens First

If you have food allergies or are avoiding specific foods, the first thing you should do is look for the "Contains" statement. This statement is usually located just below the ingredients list and will clearly indicate any common allergens present in the product. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires that all food products regulated by the FDA must list these major allergens:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

This makes it easier for consumers to quickly identify products that they need to avoid. For example, if you're allergic to peanuts, look for the "Contains" statement to see if peanuts are listed.

2. Examine the Ingredients List

Once you've checked for allergens, it's time to dive into the ingredients list. Here are some tips to help you make sense of what you see:

  • Order of Ingredients: Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. This means the first ingredient listed is the most predominant in the product. For example, if sugar is listed first, it means the product contains more sugar than any other ingredient.
  • Spotting Hidden Sugars: Sugar can appear in many forms and under various names, such as sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, and more. If you're trying to reduce your sugar intake, be aware of these alternative names.
  • Artificial Additives: Look out for artificial preservatives, flavors, and colors. While not all artificial additives are harmful, some people prefer to avoid them due to potential health concerns or personal preferences.

3. Understand the Nutritional Information

The nutritional information section provides details about the nutrient content per serving. Here's what to look for:

  • Serving Size: This tells you the amount of food that constitutes one serving. All the nutritional information provided is based on this serving size, so it's important to note how many servings you are actually consuming.
  • Calories: This section tells you how many calories are in one serving. This is crucial for managing your daily calorie intake.
  • Macronutrients: This includes fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Pay attention to the types of fats (saturated, unsaturated, trans fats), fiber content, and sugar levels.
  • Micronutrients: Vitamins and minerals are listed here. Look for products that provide a good amount of essential nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.

Tips for Specific Dietary Concerns

Managing Allergies

For those with severe allergies, cross-contamination is a concern. Some labels include statements like "manufactured in a facility that processes nuts." While these are not mandatory, they are helpful for individuals with severe allergies.

Reducing Sugar Intake

To reduce sugar intake, avoid products where sugar is listed among the first few ingredients. Additionally, watch out for multiple sources of sugar listed under different names throughout the ingredients list.

Choosing Whole Foods

Whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are often more nutritious than processed foods. When buying packaged products, look for those with fewer ingredients and those that are closer to their natural state.

The Importance of Serving Sizes

One of the most common pitfalls when reading food labels is misunderstanding serving sizes. Here’s why it matters:

  • Portion Control: Many people consume more than the serving size listed, leading to higher calorie and nutrient intake than anticipated. Always check the serving size and adjust your consumption accordingly.
  • Comparing Products: When comparing the nutritional content of similar products, ensure you’re comparing the same serving sizes. This gives you a true comparison of their nutritional values.

Common Misconceptions About Food Labels

"Natural" and "Organic" Labels

Terms like "natural" and "organic" can be misleading. "Natural" doesn't necessarily mean the product is healthy or free from additives. "Organic" products must meet specific USDA standards, but they can still contain sugars and fats.

"Low-Fat" and "Fat-Free"

Products labeled as "low-fat" or "fat-free" aren't always healthier. These products can still be high in sugar and calories. Always check the nutritional information and ingredients list to get the full picture.

Practical Examples

Example 1: Identifying Hidden Sugars

Consider a cereal box. The ingredients list might read: whole grain oats, sugar, brown sugar syrup, corn syrup, honey, and fructose. Even if sugar is not the first ingredient, multiple sources of sugar are present, indicating a high overall sugar content.

Example 2: Understanding Serving Sizes

A bag of chips might list the serving size as 1 ounce (about 15 chips), but the bag contains 5 servings. If you eat the whole bag, you need to multiply all the nutritional values by 5 to get the total intake.

Example 3: Recognizing Artificial Additives

A flavored yogurt might list ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, and Red 40. These indicate the presence of added sugars and artificial ingredients, which some consumers prefer to avoid.


Reading food labels is a skill that can significantly impact your health and well-being. By focusing on allergen information, understanding the order of ingredients, and paying attention to nutritional content, you can make better-informed choices about the foods you consume. Remember, the key is to look beyond marketing claims and focus on the actual contents of the product.

Whether you’re managing allergies, reducing sugar intake, or simply aiming for a healthier diet, proper label reading is an essential tool. With practice, you’ll become more adept at quickly identifying the information that matters most to you, making your grocery shopping experience more efficient and health-conscious.