by Maddy West, ETC blog contributor

Food labels, those confusing boxes with teeny print on the side of all your food packages, tell us all about what’s in the food we’re buying. Whether it’s the ingredients, sodium, fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sugars, proteins, or vitamins and minerals, the food label is going to be your new best friend. The values provided are based on the serving size of the item which is also provided.

The serving size is going to be your first and most important thing that you look at.  Check out #1 on the picture below.  This tells you how much of the item you should have. Looking at the picture below this says you should only have 1 cup. So, in that 1 cup you would be getting 250 calories, 12 grams of fat, 30 milligrams of cholesterol, 470 milligrams of sodium, 31 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of sugar, 5 grams of protein, as well as some of the vitamins and minerals this food is providing.

#2 on the picture is showing how many calories you will be eating. The number of calories that is right for you, depends on your age, body type, physical activity, and many more characteristics.  (A good rule of thumb…if you want to lose a bit of weight, cut out 500 calories every day to lose one pound a week!)

The % DV in #3 stands for percent of daily value, this is a good guide for knowing whether the food item is either high or low in certain key nutrients.  Foods with 5% or less DV are considered low in that specific nutrient, while foods with 20% or more DV are considered high in that nutrient.  The key is to be mindful…20% fiber = great choice, 20% sodium = rethink this item.  But, beware, this number is not the be-all, end-all of healthy eating, they are merely a rough estimate, so take them with a grain of salt!

Now let’s talk nutrients:


#4 Total Fat
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol

Here, fat is broken down into saturated fat and trans fat. Saturated fat foods are from animals and animal products. Foods with high saturated fat can contribute to clogged arteries and heart disease. Trans fats are sometimes naturally occurring fats, but often are made when frying and baking.  These fats are BIG no-nos and can wreak havoc on our bodies.  Make sure to find labels that read 0 grams trans fats!

Although the word “fat” sounds bad it is actually very necessary. Fat stores energy which is a necessity; it also helps absorbs fat-soluble vitamins such a vitamins A, D, E, and K; protects out organs; and supports our brain cells.  Look for foods low in saturated and trans fats and high in mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.


#5 Cholesterol

Cholesterol is what clogs your arteries putting you at risk for heart disease. Fatty foods cause a rise in cholesterol, specifically red meat, dairy products, and butter.

Although it sounds very bad for you, it isn’t in small amounts. It is actually necessary for producing hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone.  Don’t worry too much about eating enough cholesterol, we get a lot more than we need from our food and our body can produce it, too!


#5 Sodium

Sodium is an indicator of how much salt is in a food. Processed foods like canned spaghetti sauce and soups are very high in sodium. Unfortunately, a high sodium diet can contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease.  Most of us generally consume an extra 1,000 milligrams of sodium a day! Research shows that Americans consume about 3,400 milligrams while we should really shoot for between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams a day.


#6 Total Carbohydrates

A healthy diet involves high amounts of carbohydrates. Glucose, the building blocks of carbohydrates, provide energy for the body. Whole grains, like whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, and oats, are the best carbohydrates to consume. Many packaged food items are high in refined carbohydrates and have added sugar (these are the ones you want to avoid).  When reading the label, make sure your food is low in sugar and higher in fiber!


#7 Dietary Fiber

We, as Americans, do not eat enough fiber!  Fiber—soluble and insoluble—helps us get rid of excess cholesterol, avoid constipation, regulate blood sugar, and reduce the risk of colon cancer and hemorrhoids.  If boosting your fiber, make sure you are also drinking enough water, too!  Without enough water, you could end up gassy, bloated, and unhappy.


#8 Protein

Protein is necessary to help your body grow and rebuild!  It has a hand in immune function, muscle building, cell structure, and keeping all your body processes going.  Look for plant and animal protein sources that are high in protein and low in saturated fat.


#9 Vitamin and Minerals

These micronutrients are very important for almost every process in the body!  Some of my favorite vitamins are:

Vitamin Sources Function
Vitamin A carrots, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupes Helps promote healthy eyesight, growth, and skin
B vitamin complex whole grains, potatoes, and bananas Helps produce energy and promotes nervous system function
Vitamin C oranges, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, and peppers Acts as an antioxidant and promotes iron absorption
Vitamin D eggs, fish, and mushrooms Promotes calcium absorption and healthy bones
Vitamin E nuts, sunflower seeds, and tomatoes Promotes blood circulation
Folate dark green vegetables and dried beans Helps with red blood cell production and prevention of birth defects during pregnancy
Vitamin K kale, spinach, and broccoli Helps with blood clotting


Some of my favorite minerals are:


Mineral Sources Functions
Calcium dairy products Promotes healthy bones and teeth
Iron oysters, liver, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and spinach Maintains healthy red blood cells, transports oxygen throughout the body
Zinc meat, dried beans, grains, nuts, dark chocolate (my favorite!) Helps immunity, growth, and improvement of fertility
Other important things I look at are:



The ingredients in a food is very important, in my opinion. If one of the first ingredients is “high fructose corn syrup” I highly recommend putting that food down and finding a healthier option, if possible. High fructose corn syrup is a chemically-derived, unnatural sugar that is very unhealthy. The best kinds of ingredients to find on your food labels are ones you understand. If there are words you don’t even know how to pronounce they are most likely made in a laboratory or highly processed and very unhealthy, including:

Palm Oil


White grains (ex: bread, flour, rice)

High fructose corn syrup

Artificial sweeteners (ex: Splenda, Sweet’N’Low)

Sodium and Potassium Benzoate

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

Sodium Nitrates/Nitrites

Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow dyes

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

All different versions of sugar!



I personally look at sugar levels. I try to avoid soda and other sugary drinks as much as possible. These drinks pack in a bunch of sugar that add extra calories, extra cavities, and extra gunk we don’t need.  Women should get, at most, about 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day and men should get about 9.  That equates to 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men or about a cup of Mountain Dew!

Now that you’ve been formally introduced to your new “healthy eating” best friend, give it a try!  The next time you’re at the store, take a good look at the nutrition facts panel and ingredients of your favorite products.   And, remember, at the end of the day, we are all doing our best. Don’t give up. Love yourself. And #eatthechocolate.

Maddy is a freshman at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, PA, where she is studying nutrition and dietetics. Maddy became interested in nutrition when she was in her early teens and learned that fast food and processed foods were unhealthy. She was an avid runner and knew the importance of good nutrition to keep the body healthy. After graduating college, Maddy hopes to get accepted to a Didactic Program in Dietetics internship which is a requirement before sitting for the Registered Dietitian exam. Maddy’s future plans are to become a Registered Dietitian working in the oncology field and receiving her Master’s Degree.