Planning & Prep

How To Read Food Labels: Understanding the Basics



Last Updated: Nov 2, 2021

Sooner or later, most of us will reach a stage in our lives when we start paying closer attention to what we’re putting in our bodies.

Moderation is key, but eating a well-balanced diet isn’t always easy. How do you know if you’re eating too much or not enough? Perhaps you’re getting too much or too little of a specific type of nutrient or ingredient. Maybe you’re sensitive or allergic to a particular food. Even a nutritionist can’t keep track of all these variables from memory, so how do we manage?

Food labels are your friend and a tool everyone should use to make decisions and compare products while they shop. When you read food labels, you’ll be surprised just how often you’ll notice that two similar products can be very different. So how do you read food labels, and what information do they reveal?

How to read food labels: The basics

Food labels serve several purposes. Usually, on the front of the label, you’ll find the name of the product, as well as brand identifiers like the company logo, colors, taglines, and contact information. Featured less prominently will be a complete list of ingredients contained within the product.

Consumers can scan the ingredients to understand at a deeper level what the product contains and identify any problem ingredients they want to avoid. The nutrition facts table is usually found on the rear or the side of the label. This is perhaps the most useful part of a food label, providing a detailed breakdown of the product’s nutritional content, including calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and more.

1. Beware of misleading claims

Check the main label, featuring the product name and branding. The label may feature claims intended to promote the product as healthy or nutritious. These boasts are often featured prominently and intended to grab your attention, but read skeptically. For example, a product may be technically “fat-free,” but it may also contain excessive quantities of sugar or sodium.

2. Check the list of ingredients

One of the first things you should do is check the list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed by quantity contained from highest to lowest. Checking the list of ingredients is particularly important if you, someone in your family, or anyone else who’ll be consuming the product has any allergies. However, some people might be looking for a product to contain a specific ingredient, while others prefer not to buy processed foods and foods containing lots of additives. In general, a long list of ingredients, two lines or more, can indicate that a product is highly processed.

3. Understanding the nutrition facts

The nutrition facts section of a food label is where the scientific data is, and this is where you can find out what’s really going on. If you can decipher the nutritional information on a food label, you’ll have a much better understanding of precisely what types of food groups and nutrients the product contains. This helps you to make purchasing decisions that can add up to a more balanced diet containing just the right amount of a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

Nutrition facts of Brown Rice Pasta on pasta background.

Servings and serving size

This section tells you how many servings the package contains in total and measurements for one serving. The serving size may be listed in units such as cups, grams, ounces, or tablespoons. In some cases, the serving size may be the entire contents of the package. The data that follows this section will usually refer to the amount of each item per single serving but may also list information surrounding other aspects of the product.

Calorie count

This section tells you how much energy is contained in one serving of the product, as measured in calories. The FDA recommends that adults consume around 2,000 calories per day, although how much each individual should actually consume depends on many variables such as gender, age, height, and weight. Using 2,000 calories as a baseline, you might use the calorie count on food labels to identify products that are high in calories or to determine how many pieces of something you can consume without risking over-indulging.

Know your baselines: Percent daily values (%DV)

It’s hard to make much sense of food labels without a context for understanding what the data is referring to. For example, the nutrition facts section of a food label tells you how many grams of fat the product contains. But it might not be obvious whether the product’s fat content is high or low. Food labels list Percent Daily Values (%DV) data to provide a helpful reference point.

The %DV tells you what percentage of your daily recommended intake of a particular nutrient is contained within one serving of the product. Use this information to judge whether this product is providing you with appropriate amounts of certain nutrients. For example, if one serving of a ready-made meal provides you with over 50% of your daily fat intake, consider whether you’re also consuming large amounts of fat during your other meals.

Nutrients, vitamins, and minerals

Food labels generally list how much fat, protein, and carbohydrate are contained in one product serving. These can be broken down into sub-categories. For example, the fat content of a product is usually presented as total fat, with figures also provided for saturated fat and trans fat. Under carbohydrate, the total sugar content is usually listed along with how much added sugar the product contains. Other nutritional items commonly listed on food labels include cholesterol, sodium, and key vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium, and vitamin C.

Use the daily value percentage to identify the key nutrients contained within a product. In general, look for balance in your diet. You don’t want to consume too much of any nutrient from a single source. For example, many shoppers prefer to buy products low in saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars. Trans fat has been linked to serious health problems, so many shoppers look for products that contain zero trans fat. On the other hand, products that are rich in fiber are beneficial to a healthy diet.

Explore Food Labels on Instacart Products

Now that you understand how to read food labels, you’re equipped to be a more informed shopper. And you don’t even need to go to the store to put what you’ve learned into practice! Instacart displays the nutrition facts information for many products on the product information page. That means you can make smarter produce purchases without leaving home. Place your order with Instacart now for same-day delivery!



Instacart is the leading grocery technology company in North America, partnering with more than 1,100 national, regional, and local retail banners to deliver from more than 80,000 stores across more than 14,000 cities in North America. To read more Instacart posts, you can browse the company blog or search by keyword using the search bar at the top of the page.

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