Understanding Food Labels

How to Read & Understand Food Labels

Food labels can be confusing and feel like they’re full of information we don’t really need. What information on a food label is helping us? In this guide, I’m helping you read and understand food labels to help on your fitness and weight loss journey. 

How to Read & Understand Food Labels

Attempting to decode the information on food labels can be overwhelming. You know that the nutrition panel contains clues to whether the food is a healthy choice or not. So learning how to read food labels is a skill you should have for your own wellbeing. Legislation for food labeling varies from country to country but there are some basics that are globally relevant.

Your aim should be to understand the basics first and then, as you become more proficient, dig deeper into the nutritional information. Most people are happy being able to identify the major contents of the foodstuff and the key nutrients, but when you know there are at least 60 alternative names for sugar [1] on food labels, you can see there is a lot of information to digest.

Here’s how to get started with the basics of how to read & understand food labels.

Most food packaging contains various labels or panels within labels sectioning off the information:

The Back or Side Label

The basic information is found on the back or side label. Usually in the form of tables or grids, the info includes the serving size, the number of servings in the package and the number of calories each serving contains. If you’re counting calories, this is a great place to start. You’ll also see the total fat content and the saturated fat content here.

These sections also contain information on the protein, carb, sugar and salt content of the food.

It’s important to limit your salt and sugar intake because a diet too high in either can cause health problems, according to experts . If you’re attempting to cut too many carbs from your diet, this is where you need to look. You will see how much of each item is in the food, along with the percentage of the daily intake recommendations, known as RDA [2].

Some labels, below the main panel, provide a table of the key nutrients (vitamins, minerals and trace elements) in terms of the % of the RDA a serving contains.

The Front Label

Most foods now contain a quick reference guide on the front of the package. With just a glance you can see how many calories are in a serving, as well as the amount of total fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar. This is handy when you’re buying something you’ve never purchased or are working within strict guidelines regarding your intake of certain nutrients.

You might notice that labels have a color-coded system. It is a legal requirement in the UK but optional in the USA. The system uses red, amber and green. A food that lists its nutritional information in a red box is high in fat, salt and sugar. Amber refers to foods that have a moderate content, while green foods are those that are low in calories, fat, salt and sugar. The more green you see, the healthier the food is.

The Ingredients List

Another important part of the packaging to look at is the ingredients list. There’s a simple rule at work here in that the ingredients are listed in order of their highest concentration in the product. Also, you will find that healthier foods have a shorter list, while processed foods have a longer one. The longer the list, the more unrecognizable names you’ll read. Generally, consider saying away from foods that contain items you can’t pronounce. As well as sugar substitutes, long lists of E-numbers, and partially hydrogenated fats.

Label Claims

You are bound to see certain terms on food labels that may trick you into thinking they are a great choice. For example, something may be labeled high protein. Yes, protein is important, but that same item could also be high in simple carbs or salt, neither of which too much of are healthy.

Likewise, a gluten-free item might sound like the healthier choice, but many such foods are filled with replacements for the gluten that are not good for your body. The same goes for foods labeled as high in calcium, low in fat or fat-free.

Your best bet is to do some research and always ask questions! Read through the ingredients list and the nutritional panel for the information that can give you clues as to whether the food is a healthy choice or not. If you’d like to ask me and my team of nutritionists questions about what is healthy and what’s not, consider joining the Mother Strong League.

The Mother Strong League is my signature training and membership program that helps you understand food, health and your body. We have training programs specific to your needs, whether you’re currently pregnant, recently postpartum, or a seasoned mom. With a coach in your back pocket and nutritionists to hand, this program teaches you everything you need to know about your health and fitness. Learn more here.


  1. http://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/hidden-in-plain-sight/#.WnXKgKhl_IU
  2. http://vitamins.lovetoknow.com/What_is_RDA


https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/food-labelling.aspxUnderstanding Food Labels

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