How to read a nutrition label
Reading the nutrition label can help you learn more about the food you eat, maintain a healthy weight and lower your cancer risk.
Knowing more about the food you’re eating is one way to maintain a healthy weight. Maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of lowering your cancer risk. Obesity has been linked to several kinds of cancer, including colorectal cancer and breast cancer.
One way to learn more about the food you eat is to read the nutrition label. The Food and Drug Administration requires most foods to feature nutrition labels that include how much food is inside the package and what nutrients and ingredients make up that food.
But reading the label can be a little tricky, so we spoke with Ann-Marie Hedberg, associate director of Clinical Nutrition at MD Anderson, to learn more. Here are some tips for reading and understanding a nutritional label.
Step 1 – Check the serving size and the Percent Daily Value.
The serving size is at the top of the label. It may be listed by volume (one cup), weight (6 ounces) or units (one cookie). Under that, the label will tell you how many servings are in the package. Don’t assume that the whole package is a single serving. For example, the typical small bag of potato chips from a vending machine probably has two servings of chips.
All of the nutrition information listed on the label applies to one serving, not the whole package. To get a total of calories and other nutrients for the entire package, multiply each of the numbers by the number of servings per container.
On the right side, you’ll see Percent Daily Value. The Percent Daily Value shows how much of a certain nutrient is in a serving versus how much you need each day based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
For example, if the Percent Daily Value shows 4% dietary fiber, then the serving size contains 4% of the fiber you should eat that day if you are on a 2,000 calorie diet. Talk with a registered dietitian to understand your unique nutritional needs.
Step 2 – Note how many calories are in a serving.
Next is the number of calories in one serving. If you’re trying to lose weight to lower your cancer risk, you may want to consume fewer calories. Pay attention to this number so you can understand how many calories you're taking in from this product. Calories are important to consider when working toward weight loss or maintaining a healthy weight but that's not the full picture. The nutritional value and benefit are just as important for reducing cancer risk. A registered dietitian can help you design a personalized plan to meet your needs.
Step 3 – Make sure the item doesn’t have too much saturated fat, trans fats or sodium.
- Fat – The fats in foods are called dietary fats. Two types of these fats, saturated and trans fats, are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends limiting the amount of fat in your diet. According to the AICR, a serving with 20% of the recommended daily value of fat is considered a high amount of fat, while 5% is considered low.
- Sodium – The ACIR recommends limiting the amount of salt you eat to less than 2,400 milligrams a day. Salt is listed as sodium on a nutrition label. Eating too much sodium can cause high blood pressure and can increase your risk for stomach cancer. Try to stay away from foods that have more than twice the milligrams of sodium than calories per serving. A high sodium content compared to calorie content indicates a very processed food.
Step 4 – Check the carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates should make up 45% to 65% of your total daily calories, according to the AICR. Total carbohydrates are divided in to two categories on a label, dietary fiber and sugar.
- Dietary fiber – Foods with fiber can help you feel full and satisfied. This helps you reduce your calorie intake and maintain a healthy weight. Foods with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving are considered a good source of this important nutrient.
- Sugar – Small amounts of added sugar can be a part of a healthy diet, but most American adults consume too much. Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, increasing your cancer risk. Check the ingredients for items like, sugar, honey, corn syrup, fructose, maltose, dextrose or cane syrup. These are other names for sugar sources in foods. The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons a day for men. A teaspoon is equal to 4 grams of sugar.
Step 5 – Make sure you’re getting enough protein and vitamins.
- Protein – Dairy products, meat and some plant-based foods like soy, beans, peas and lentils have protein. This nutrient helps build cells and tissue for healing and growth. We need protein in our diet for our body to function. Try to get your protein from plant-based sources. The AICR recommends limiting red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) to no more than 18 ounces per week and avoiding processed meats.
- Vitamins – Many nutrition labels list vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. Most Americans don’t get enough of these vitamins. Look for foods high in these nutrients. It’s better to get these nutrients by eating food rather than taking supplements. The AICR recommends against taking supplements to protect against cancer.
- Check the ingredients. Select items with real, whole foods listed in the first couple ingredients.
- Stay away from foods that include lots of preservatives or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
By being aware of how to read a nutrition label and what to look for, you can help make healthy choices and lower your cancer risk.