Most of the features of a food label are completely irrelevant to nutritionists, but other things are helpful.
MOST IMPORTANT FEATURES:
Serving size and servings per container.
The serving size is important because it tells you what the food company considers to be the portion size. I’m reading a can of coconut milk, and the serving size is one-third of a cup. So, if I pour a full cup into my blender for a smoothie, the calories, fat, carbs, and protein I’m consuming is about triple what the label is indicating.
“Servings per container” is important, too. Before Doug had a TV show, I’d occasionally buy those small containers of ice cream as a sweet treat. I’d read the label and the calories looked low, the carbs were low, and I thought, “I may as well eat the whole thing.” Months later, however, I noticed that there were four servings in a single container. I thought I was getting only 8 grams of carbs because that’s what it said on the label. But because I was eating four servings, I was actually getting 32 grams of carbs. I thought I was only eating 180 calories. But because I was eating four servings, I was actually consuming 720 calories! Which is a huge difference.
(By the way, serving size is important for supplements, as well. Lots of people will read about the milligram strength of a particular supplement, but they’ll neglect to look at the serving size. Very often, you’ll need multiple capsules to get the amount of the nutrient you’re trying to take.)
When you read the ingredients for a food product, the most abundant ingredient is listed first, and it goes in descending order after that. I do realize that it’s hard to discern what certain ingredients actually are. Some are just the chemical names for vitamins. I remember a TV commercial for a juice, and they were being critical of “ingredients you can’t pronounce, like tocopherol acetate and ascorbic acid”. Turns out, those hard-to-pronounce ingredients were just Vitamin E and Vitamin C! No big deal.
Others are more worrisome, though. I don’t like seeing artificial dyes, preservatives, flavor enhancers, etc. I’m thinking of several off the top of my head, but knowing that the big food companies like to get their lawyers on little guys like me, I’m going to have to direct you to places like the Environmental Working Group and similar organizations for more education on what to look for.