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Reading a Food Label

The nutrition facts panel on all canned and packaged foods can help you choose a healthy diet. You can enhance your eating habits and live a healthier life by learning how to properly read labels on food packages. Use the instruction below to guide you as you do your grocery shopping, and soon, you might notice a difference in how you feel.

Serving size 

Serving sizes are standardized for many products. Pay attention to how much of the food is equal to one serving. Note the weight in grams, printed next to the serving size. This will help you to choose accurate portions.


Look at the calorie content in relation to the weight in grams. Ideally you want one calorie or less per gram. Doing this will help you are eat nutrient dense foods, not foods with a lot of "empty" calories.

Fat content

The number of grams of fat you should eat each day depends on how many calories your body needs and what percent of those calories you want to come from fat. A good range is between 20-60 grams; the lower number representing a 10-percent fat diet and the higher number a 30-percent fat diet. When considering the amount of fat you eat, don't forget to count meat, which doesn't have a label. A three-ounce serving of lean meat, fish or poultry can contain anywhere from three to 10 grams of fat.

Saturated fat raises the LDL cholesterol level in your blood. In most people, LDL cholesterol makes plaque in the arteries. A one-percent reduction of saturated fat in your diet reduces your heart disease risk by three percent. Keep saturated fat to less then 15 grams per day.

It is not required to list unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) on food labels. In general, unsaturated fats lower cholesterol. The healthiest unsaturated fat is canola oil.

Look at the ingredients to see what type of fat was used to make the food. Many processed foods contain partially hydrogenated oils, which are called "trans fatty acids." These fats act like a saturated fat in the body by raising your LDL cholesterol. However, they are not considered part of the saturated fat grams on the nutrition facts panel. Limit foods containing these fats, especially if they are listed as one of the first few ingredients.


Your total cholesterol intake should be less than 200 mg. per day. One of the major sources of cholesterol in the diet is animal products. Many fresh meats, poultry and fish do not have a nutrition facts label. The average cholesterol per ounce of an animal product is 25 mg.

Percent of calories from fat

Divide the calories from fat by the total calories. Keep in mind not every food you eat needs to contain less than 30 percent of the calories from fat. Some foods will contain no fat, such as fruit, and others may contain a higher percentage. It's the average of all the foods in your diet that you want to keep to less than 30 percent.


Too much sodium in your diet can contribute to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Kidney disease and osteoporosis are also associated with a high sodium diet. The average American eats 5,000-10,000 mg. of sodium per day. Most of this comes from processed foods. Our bodies need about 250 mg. per day to function. You can reduce the sodium in your diet a lot by eating fresh foods rather than foods in bags, boxes and cans. Most government and health organizations suggest a limit of 1,500-3,000 mg. of sodium per day. When it comes to sodium, less is best.

Total carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy during most physical activity. Carbohydrates should comprise 50-75 percent of your calories, or about 200-500 grams per day depending on your caloric requirement.

Fiber may play as much of a role in disease prevention as fat. Aim for at least 30 grams per day. Soluble fiber is especially helpful for lowering LDL cholesterol. Compare fiber grams on breads, cereals, crackers, etc., and go with the brand containing the higher amount. High fiber foods contain at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Don't worry if there is a little more fat in the high-fiber foods because the wheat germ of whole grain products contains some unsaturated fat.

Sugar is present in many processed foods; some is naturally occurring and some is added. Your body doesn't know the difference, so the total sugar content is the amount listed on the nutrition facts. Your sugar intake should not be more than 10 percent of your total calories.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

HFCS is frequently used in processed foods to give sweetness. Unfortunately, it can raise LDL cholesterol if consumed in large amounts. Look for it in the ingredients. Try to avoid consuming a lot of foods with HFCS.

Daily value percentage

Daily values are a set of standards developed as a reference for various nutrients on the food label. They are listed on the bottom of the nutrition facts panel. Daily values were set for nutrients, such as fat and sodium, that are important to know for disease prevention. In most cases there is no recommended daily allowance for these nutrients. Daily values can help you see how the food rates in contributing each of the nutrients to your diet and are based on a 2000 calorie diet. However, if you eat more or less than 2,000 calories per day, the numbers for your diet will be less or more, respectively. In general, if a food has less then 10 percent of the daily value for a nutrient, then that food contributes a minor amount of the nutrient to your diet - if you eat only one serving. For fats, cholesterol, sodium and sugar you want the daily value to be low. For fiber you want the daily value to be high.


Your protein needs are based on your body weight. The typical American diet is too high in animal protein. In reducing your animal sources of protein, be sure to replace them with beans, soy foods, whole grains and small amounts of nuts. Fish is the best choice if you do eat animal protein. Turkey and wild game are also low-fat choices. You can estimate your protein needs in grams by multiplying your body weight in pounds by .40.

Example: a 150-pound person, would require about 60 grams protein per day. [150 x .4 = 60]

Vitamins and minerals

Two vitamins and two minerals will be listed at the bottom of the label under protein. The percentages next to these indicate what percent of the daily value for these nutrients is found in these foods. These crackers, for example, are not a good source of vitamin A or C, but they do contribute a tiny bit of calcium. Fortified grains can be a good source of iron, especially for people who eat small amounts of red meat.

Daily values of select vitamins and minerals.

Vitamin A

1000 re


Vitamin D

400 iu


Vitamin E

30 iu


Vitamin C

60 mg



400 mcg


Thiamin (B-1)

1.5 mg


Riboflavin (B-2)

1.7 mg


Niacin (B-3)

20 mg


Vitamin B-6

2 mg


Vitamin B-12

6 mcg



0.3 mg


Pantothenic acid

10 mg



1000 mg



1000 mg



150 mcg



18 mg



400 mg



2 mg



15 mg



Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. In other words, items at the top of the list are what are present in the largest amount.