How to Read a Food Label

The U.S. government requires food manufacturers to spell out the nutritional value of the foods they sell. This includes prepared and packaged foods such as bread, cereal, canned foods, desserts, snacks, frozen dinners, and drinks. Only fresh fruit and vegetables, raw meats, and seafood do not have these labels. Here is what the terms on food labels mean.1,2

Understanding food labels with type 2 diabetes

Nutrition facts labels appear on packaged foods and include specific information, including:1,2

  • Serving size tells you how much of the product is considered 1 serving. A jar of nuts might say: 1 oz. or about 10 almonds. The nutrients listed below the serving size are based on a single serving. This is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.
  • Servings per container tells you how many servings you get in a container. A bag of what you think is a single serving of potato chips may actually be 3 servings. If you eat the whole bag, you will need to multiply the number of calories, salt, and fat by 3.
  • Calories are a unit of measure that tells you how much energy is in 1 serving of food. You can use this number to estimate how many calories a day you are eating. You can also judge whether a food gives you a good energy and nutritional bang for the calories.
  • Amount per serving. This section includes total calories, calories from fat, carbohydrates, and protein, and sodium (salt) content. Fats are broken into saturated fat and cholesterol. Carbohydrates are broken into total carbohydrates, total sugars, added sugars, and fiber.
  • Protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. The food’s protein, vitamin, mineral, and fiber content per single serving appear in the bottom of the boxed area, above the ingredients list. These amounts are based on daily values the average person should get from what they eat. Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium are most often listed on a food label.
  • Percent daily value (%DV) is a measure of how much of a nutrient is in a serving of food. Each percent listed is based on a government average of what people need in general. You may need more or less of a nutrient depending on your health needs and gender. The %DV also gives you an idea of whether this food is high or low in a nutrient or fiber. This can help you decide how much of a food to eat based on your body’s nutritional needs. In general, if a serving of food has 5%DV or less of a nutrient per serving, it is thought to be low in that nutrient. If a food has 20%DV or more of a nutrient, it is considered to be rich in that nutrient.
  • Ingredients list. Your dietitian or diabetes educator can help you learn what to look for when reading food labels and make suggestions for calorie and nutrient goals. They can also teach you to watch out for hidden sugars and other names for salt, sugar, and fat in an ingredients list.

Comparing labels

By comparing food labels, you will begin to learn which of your favorite brands need to be substituted for an ingredient lower in carbohydrates, fat, or salt. You will also find out which foods tend to drive up your blood sugar versus keep it steady.

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: February 2021.