A Dietitian's Tips For Reading Food Labels

By Ann Thelen

Anne Hytrek, registered dietitian at the Ankeny Prairie Trail Hy-Vee, shares easy tips to help navigate the grocery aisle to benefit your health and wellness goals. Plus, follow along on a virtual tour to pick up more tricks for cooking and selecting a variety of food. 

Anne Hytrek, MSEd, RD, LD, CDE, works at the Ankeny Prairie Trail Hy-Vee. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

What was once a quick stop in the grocery store to pick up the essentials – milk, bread, eggs and meat – has turned into an often-overwhelming experience. The reason: bold package marketing vying for shoppers’ attention at every turn. But shoppers shouldn’t be distracted with the hype and hyperbole, says Anne Hytrek, a registered dietitian with the Ankeny Prairie Trail Hy-Vee.

“For foods with packaging, the information on the back is what people should be looking at, not what’s facing shoppers as they sort through the enormous amount of choices available today,” she says.

Go Beyond Calories

Hytrek is referring to the nutrition label, and there is a science to how those labels should be read. In the Nutrition Facts Panel of the label, it shows how much of each the product has per serving. The Food and Drug Administration has broken down nutrients into two groups: “limit these” nutrients and “get enough of these” nutrients. It is recommended that you limit total fat, cholesterol and sodium while making sure you get enough fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron.

The second important section is the percentage of Recommended Daily Value.

“This guide recommends how much of each nutrient is in a serving in terms of the daily recommended amount based on a 2,000-calorie diet,” Hytrek says. “The reference diet is used to give the public a general guide. Every individual's specific calorie needs may be slightly different, so it's essential to know what a healthy amount is based on your age, weight, health concerns and other factors."

On the label, if a nutrient is under 5%, it is considered a low item. Consumers should aim for items low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. In contrast, 20% or above is considered high. For vitamins, minerals and fiber, it’s positive to have high values. If one item is providing 20% or more of your fat, sodium or cholesterol for the whole day, it’s important to think about how that fits into your diet. When several items are incorporated into a meal or as snacks throughout the day, those percentages add up quickly.

Take a Virtual Grocery Store Tour

In the video above, Hytrek takes viewers on shopping tour at Hy-Vee. She provides easy tips and tricks for purchasing and cooking a rainbow of food choices.

  • What types of fats are solid at room temperature?
  • Are they considered healthy or unhealthy fats, and how many grams are acceptable each day?
  • How do consumers know what to buy if nutritional labels don’t appear on fruits, vegetables and meat?
  • What cuts of meats are best suited for grilling, baking or cooking in a slow cooker or Instant Pot?
  • What’s a trick for keeping moisture in burgers when grilling?
  • How can consumers get more fiber out of fruits and vegetables?
  • How should vegetables be cooked to maximize nutrient retention?
  • What’s the biggest trend right now for cooking vegetables?
  • Who is a resource for helping to customize a meal plan?