How to Read a Nutrition Label (You Thought You Knew!)

As a Spartan, it's safe to assume you generally eat a fairly healthy diet. We're talking about lots of veggies and fruits, lean protein, healthy fats and quality carbohydrates. You know the drill. But even if you have the best of intentions, it's easy for less-than-ideal ingredients (like added sugars) to sneak their way into your diet. For example, yogurt is full of probiotic cultures that help stabilize and support gut health. That said, not all yogurt is created equal. Many brands add sugar for flavor and sweetness, so even though you think you're indulging in a healthy snack, you're really just setting yourself back. That's where an understanding of how to read nutrition food labels comes in handy.

Related: 7 Healthiest Pantry Staples Every Athlete Should Have at Home

The good news? You don't have to be a nutritionist or registered dietician to get the basics. But it is important that you study up. "Because food intake is such a fundamental part of our longterm fitness and wellbeing, knowing what's in the food before you ingest it, seems like the bare minimum for a health conscious consumer," says Dr. Nada Milosavljevic, MD and Director of Integrative Health at Mass General Hospital.

What's the Most Important Thing on a Nutrition Food Label?

If you only look at one thing, make sure it's the serving size. Because so many consumers are calorie conscious, food companies often breakdown the number of calories into calories per portion, rather than calories per package. In other words, a bag of organic pretzels might contain 150 calories per service (say, 7 pretzel chips), but there are 10 servings in the bag. So if you pop the pretzels for a Netflix marathon without counting out a serving—because seriously, who eats just 7 pretzels—chances are you'll work your way through more calories than you intended. Tricky, right? Consider it the food companies' way of minimizing the appearance of calories in the nutrition profile to make their products more marketable. If you want to eat the whole bag, go for it, but be clear that the bag itself is not 150 calories, rather 1500. (Same goes for the sugars, carbs etc. that are listed on the package. Each would be multiplied by how many servings you choose to consume.)

Nutrition Food Labels: How to Make Sense of Calorie Claims

"A lot of [nutrition food labels] are written in shorthand so you need to know exactly what they mean," says Dr. Milosavljevic. Food companies use different phrases on packaging to designate limited calories in food, she says, so knowing what these mean will help you become a more savvy consumer.

1. Reduced Calories

WHAT IT MEANS: When you see "reduced calories" on a nutrition label, the product has at least 25% fewer calories for a specified nutrient than the ordinary product.

2. Low Calorie

WHAT IT MEANS: When you see "low calorie" on a nutrition label, it designates 40 calories or less per serving.

3. Calorie Free

WHAT IT MEANS: When you see "calorie free" on a nutrition label it does not mean there are zero calories (like pure H2O) but rather 5 calories or less per serving.

4. Fat Free/Sugar Free

WHAT IT MEANS: When you see a product claiming to be fat free or sugar free, that means it has half a gram of sugar or fat, or less. But there may still be sugar and fat in the food.

Related: Eat Real, Whole Foods: Joe De Sena's 5 Principles of Spartan Nutrition

Highs and Lows On Nutrition Labels

1. Low Cholesterol

WHAT IT MEANS: Products claiming to be low in cholesterol should have 25 milligrams or less of saturated fat per serving.

2. Low Sodium

WHAT IT MEANS: Foods low in sodium have 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.

3. "High In"

WHAT IT MEANS: A food label that claims it's "high in" a nutrient, like fiber or vitamin C, has 20% or more of the recommended daily intake.

4. "Good Source Of"

WHAT IT MEANS: When a food label claims to be a "good source of" an ingredient that means the product contains at least 10-19% of the daily value of that nutrient.

How to Get Started Reading Nutrition Food Labels

Now, you definitely don't have to memorize all of this, but it is good to know what each phrase means in terms of your food intake. "There are a lot of details to remember and it may seem like too many, especially if you're rushing home from the supermarket to feed your kids, complete your chores, pay the bills and head for a workout," says Dr. Milosavljevic. Instead of getting overwhelmed, she recommends choosing a quiet time when you're not in a rush to do some label reading in your pantry. Start flipping through food labels and you'll learn what to look for to make important, healthy, informed food choices.

Listen to the Podcast: Nutrition Food Labels

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