As people seek ways to improve their overall health, they often turn to reading food labels and there is a clear relationship between our food choices and our health. Now is the perfect time to revisit how we read food labels.

Recently the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced changes to the Nutrition Facts panel for all packaged foods. This is exciting news and we hope these modifications will help you to make more informed decisions at the grocery store. Here are five simple steps to making the most of the current food label:

1. Go directly to the list of ingredients

This section lists all ingredients in the food including spices, flavorings, preservatives, and additives. All items are listed from most to least by weight. In Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules, An Eater's Manual he recommends avoiding food products that contain more than five ingredients.

Pollan explains that the exact number is not as important as knowing that in most cases the more ingredients, the more highly processed the food.

2. Always identify the serving size

Similar foods should have similar serving sizes for easy comparison. But with larger packages there is often more than one serving in the container. So, identify the actual serving size and number of servings per container so you can better manage your portions.

3. Aim for lower sodium

Many packaged foods are loaded with unnecessary and unneeded salt. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping your total sodium at less than 2,300 mg per day. Try selecting items with less than twenty percent (about 500 mg) of the daily value for sodium. Even better is if you can keep it closer to five percent (about 115 mg) or less.

4. Check out the fiber content

High fiber diets have been shown to lower blood cholesterol and reduce risk for several chronic diseases, including some forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and several digestive disorders. The general recommendation ranges from 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day. If an item contains twenty percent or more of the daily value for fiber it’s an excellent source of fiber. And fiber keeps you feeling full, too.

5. Select foods that don’t have a food label

Okay,  so this isn’t really a guide for reading food labels. But most health professionals agree that one of the most important steps to improving the standard American diet is to increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. Spend more time in the produce aisle or local farmers market where you don’t have to worry about reading labels and you can focus on bright, colorful selections.

A little bit of planning and preparation goes a long way.

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD, LDN

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD, LDN, is director of well-being for Lifespan Human Resources and a clinical dietitian.