How to Read a Food Label

All told, the quality of the calories and the number of calories you consume are interrelated. Both are important for maintaining a healthy weight and increasing your chances of other long-term health benefits. Online calculators can help you check your recommended daily calories.

There are three main components of grains: the bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains have removed the bran and germ — to have longer shelf life and be finer and lighter in terms of flour — whereas true whole grains keep these intact. They offer dietary fiber, healthy fats, protein and many vitamins and minerals.

Eating whole grains has been linked to a range of positive health outcomes. Shoot for at least half of your total grains consumed to be whole grains, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (Each day, aim for 48 grams = three servings.)

A good tool for checking whole-grain content on packages is the Oldways Whole Grains Council’s stamp system.

  • 100% Whole Grain: All of the grain in the product is exclusively whole-grain. A minimum of 16 grams per serving (considered one full serving of whole grains) is required.

  • 50%+ Whole Grain: Of the grain in the product, at least half is whole-grain. Must offer at least a half-serving, or 8 grams, per serving of the product.

  • Whole Grain (the basic stamp): This means a product provides a “significant” amount of whole grain (8 grams minimum), but less than half of all the grain is whole-grain.

For those with food allergies, small amounts of trace ingredients can cause serious symptoms or even be life-threatening.

  • Know what to look for: The top eight most common food allergens in the United States, which account for 90 percent of food allergies, are: eggs, milk, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and Crustacean shellfish.

  • Know where to look: If a product contains any of the top eight, the F.D.A. requires that manufacturers disclose that information through one of two ways. If you or someone in your care has a food allergy, check both the ingredients list — which might include, for instance, “whey (milk),” so someone with a milk allergy would be aware — and the note beneath or beside the ingredients list, which might say, for instance “Contains: milk.”

  • Remember this disclosure system only applies to food products regulated by the F.D.A. Products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes meat, poultry and certain egg products, are not required to include allergen labeling. Some manufacturers may list advisories such as a product being processed in a facility where a given allergen can be found, but these measures are voluntary, so for those foods, you can’t rely on the labels alone to ensure that a food product is safe for consumption for a food-allergic individual.

A few general tips to remember as you navigate food labels to align with your health goals:

Whenever something gets removed from a processed food product — say, fat — it needs to be replaced with something that serves a similar function (desired texture, shelf life, flavor, color, etc.). “It’s physics,” Mr. Mande said. “There’s still food there.”

  • Sometimes the thing being subbed in may have worse effects on health than the original offender.

  • Gluten-free is a more recent example with similar consequences: Once the gluten is removed, it usually needs to be replaced with something. And the junk fillers for gluten are usually flour replacements such as tapioca starch, potato starch or rice starch. They’re also refined carbs, which give the bloodstream a jolt of sugar. Just as a fat-free SnackWell’s cookie in 1992 was still a cookie, today a gluten-free toaster pastry is still a toaster pastry.

Focus on healthy dietary patterns overall, such as the well-studied Mediterranean Diet — mostly fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains — rather than focusing on specific nutrients. For example, if your diet is already high in saturated fat, maybe you’re best off with a daily habit of 1% milk, but if your all-around eating pattern emphasizes healthy, minimally processed, mostly plant-based foods, you’re probably fine opting for 2%.

Fortifying processed foods does not make them healthy. In a practice the food studies author Warren Belasco calls “nutrification,” manufacturers of food products may first remove a healthful component found naturally in an ingredient (say, the germ and bran from wheat kernels), then add back in nutrients that would have been in the whole food to start with, slap a label on the box of the processed product touting these attributes, and charge slightly more. Enriched grains are a classic example of this. A better bet is to buy the item that hasn’t had its best nutritional attributes removed through excessive processing in the first place.