Do you know how to read a nutrition label? Here's what to look for.

Eating nutritiously is practically a superpower. A healthy diet is linked to increased longevity, lower risk of depression and heart problems, better sleep and a host of other benefits. So why aren’t we all doing it? It’s not as simple as it sounds. High quality foods can be expensive, and many Americans feel they don’t have time to follow a healthy lifestyle, according to a recent Cleveland Clinic survey. Packaged foods offer speed and convenience — and many claim to be low in fat or sugar — but they’re more likely to be highly processed and less nutritious. And it's not always obvious which ones provide valuable nutrients and which ones are full of empty calories.

Nutrition labels can offer some helpful clues if you can get past the maze of information and jargon.

Here’s what you need to know to cut through the health-claim noise and analyze a nutrition label without spending hours in the grocery store.

Woman shopping in grocery store
Nutrition labels can be difficult to understand, but it's worth the trouble to get some insight on your food purchases. (Getty Images)

Why do nutrition labels matter?

Any processed or packaged foods — ranging from packed meats and yogurt to cookies and crackers — are required by law to have nutrition labels. They show the serving size, calories and ingredients including certain additives and nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar and vitamins and minerals that are in a product.

Nutrition labels “are really there to protect you as a consumer, so there’s transparency about what’s being added to food,” dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, tells Yahoo Life. When you buy an apple or a bunch of broccoli, you know what you’re getting. But it’s less clear what's in packaged foods like chips, frozen dinners or a can of soup. A nutrition label will “give you insight into the overall composition of the food,” including preservatives and flavor enhancers that are fine to eat, but not very nutritious, Palinski-Wade says.

Sodium (aka salt), for example, is often added to foods as a preservative. We need sodium in our diet, but too much of it is linked to high blood pressure and greater risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nutrition labels help you estimate how much cumulative sodium you’re eating in a day.

Don't be swayed by the front of the package

When you see labels like “reduced fat” on packaged foods, “don’t let them sway you,” Palinski-Wade says. “Food manufacturers can say a lot of things on the front of the package and some are regulated but others aren't, so they can be misleading,” she says. When you see labels promising something delicious with no fat or no sugar or few calories, ask yourself: “If it looks too good to be true, at what cost?” Tara Coleman, a nutritionist, tells Yahoo Life. “Health marketing may be a little bit misleading because it’s not showing that.”

If a snack says its flavor is “chocolate fudge mocha birthday cake flavor,” Coleman jokes, but it claims to have no sugar, you might ask yourself, what is in the recipe that gives it such a richly sweet, delicious flavor? And the best way to find out is to flip the package over and read the label.

Usually it means that something has been added to the recipe to make the food sweeter. These added artificial sweeteners are considered safe to eat in limited amounts. But “natural sugar is usually occurring alongside other nutrients like fiber or antioxidants,” Palinski-Wade says. “Added sugar isn’t coming with any of those nutrients,” so it’s good to try to keep added sugars from accounting for more than 10% of your daily diet, she notes.

Look at how many servings are in the package

If, for example, you pick up an energy bar, you might “make the assumption that it’s a single serving,” says Coleman. “But then you flip it over and it says a serving size is half the bar, so that means that if you eat the whole bar, you have to multiply everything on that label by two.”

So if you’re trying to get a sense of how many calories or how much of various nutrients are in a packaged food, multiply the listed amounts by the “servings per container” amount. Take, for example, a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. According to its nutrition facts label, a serving contains 39% of the recommended daily sodium. But a single can has 2.5 servings. So that one can of soup actually contains nearly 98% of your daily recommended sodium.

Coleman says that many people believe that whatever a package lists as a serving of a food is the amount they should be eating. But that’s not necessarily the case. The serving size is simply the amount of the food that the label’s nutritional information applies to. According to the Food and Drug Administration, “the serving size reflects the amount that people typically eat or drink. It is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.”

Pay attention to listings of added sugar, saturated fats, fiber and protein

For most people, “if we aim to choose food that has more fiber, less sugar and less saturated fat, we’re helping our overall health, including our cardiovascular health, our blood sugar and our energy levels,” says Palinksi-Wade.

Eating too much saturated fat can lead to the build up of LDL (aka “bad”) cholesterol, which contributes to cardiovascular problems. Saturated fat should account for less than 10% of your daily calories. Too much sugar — especially added sugar that doesn’t come with other nutrients — can contribute to blood vessel damage and may put you at greater risk for diabetes, obesity and even some cancers. Keeping your added sugar intake to less than 10% of your daily calories will help prevent these problems, says Palinski-Wade.

Fiber, on the other hand, has several health benefits. It makes us feel full and satisfied for longer. It also binds to harmful cholesterol and carries it out of the body and helps foster good bacteria in our gut, which play a crucial role in the immune system and brain and mental health. Coleman refers to fiber and protein as “slow fuel,” because they take longer for our bodies to process and give us more lasting energy.

Sugar, on the other hand, is fast fuel, meaning we get a spike in energy — and our blood sugar levels — shortly after eating, followed by a crash. This scenario makes it hard to maintain energy levels and, over time, can contribute to insulin resistance and illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

An easy response? Coleman recommends looking for foods that have more fiber than sugar or more protein than sugar. She says that 5 grams of protein is a good amount for a snack, while a meal should contain 25-35 grams for an average person. Women should aim to eat 25-28 grams of fiber and men should eat about 28 grams, but because 95% of Americans don’t eat enough fiber, more is generally better for healthy people.

Fiber and protein act like speed bumps to slow down the processing of food, including sugar. And when there’s more fiber or protein than sugar in a food, other macronutrients “tend to fall into place,” meaning there will likely be a relatively good balance of carbohydrates, fat, sodium, minerals and vitamins.

Check the first few ingredients

In general, the fewer ingredients that are listed on a nutrition label, the less processed a food is. But even if there is a laundry list of ingredients, the snack, canned good or frozen meal might still be nutritious if its primary ingredients are healthy ones.

“The order of ingredients isn’t just random; the first ingredient is what makes up the majority of the food,” says Palinski-Wade. So if the first ingredient listed is sugar, the food likely won’t have a lot of nutritional value. But if the first few ingredients are recognizable foods — such as a protein, vegetable, fruit or nut — there’s a good chance you’re going to get substantial nutritional value from it.

Given how pervasive diet culture is, it's easy to get caught up in trying to choose foods based only on what they don't have: fewer calories, lower carbs or less fat. But experts say it's just as important to focus on the nutrients you are getting — energizing protein, gut-healthy fiber, immune-boosting vitamins and more — because our bodies need them all.

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