What to Look For & How to Make Sense of It
Understanding how to read a Nutrition Facts label is one of the simplest ways to improve your eating habits. Unfortunately, many people either simply don’t read the label, or are unaware of what it all means. This article will help you understand how to mindfully read a Nutrition Facts label so you can make good choices, one meal at a time!
So grab a favorite snack and follow along as we break down how to read a Nutrition Facts Label.
For this article we will be using a nutrition label taken from a commonly consumed trail mix.
Let’s look at the ingredients and run down the label from top to bottom:
Before looking at the Nutrition Facts Label, first review the ingredients list and see where the sources are coming from.
According to the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) provided by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ingredients for foods are required to be listed in “descending order of predominance by weight,1” meaning the most used ingredient is listed first and the least used ingredient is last.
For example: Candy Coated Chocolate, Candy Shell…Roasted Peanuts, Raisins, Roasted Almonds.
When looking at the ingredients list, make sure the sources are coming from real food. Ideally, you’ll be able to recognize and pronounce everything in the ingredients list. If the first ingredient is sugar, enriched, or something you don’t recognize you may want to consider another option. Avoid foods with lots of chemical names and dyes.
The label contains information about calories and the amounts of nutrients found in the food. A nutrient is a part of food that is essential for life. These include macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins), cholesterol and sodium, as well as vitamins and minerals. We’ll go over what all these are below.
Under Nutrition Facts, first you will see the Serving size information. This is not a recommendation of how much you should eat.
You can use this information to determine how much is in a container by seeing how many servings are in the package.
For example: The suggested serving size for this package is 30 grams. This bag contains 15 servings. 15 x 30g = 450g total in the container.
Next you’ll see how many calories “per serving” there are.
A calorie is a unit of measurement that measures the potential energy in food. If you eat more calories than you use, you’ll gain weight. If you don’t eat enough, you’ll become low energy and stressed. Check out our article “What is a Calorie?” for a detailed explanation on what a calorie is and how much you should eat.
For this example, our package of trail mix has 15 servings: 15 servings x 140 calories = 2,100 total calories in this package.
% Daily Values (DV)
Under Calories you’ll see the nutrients list. Each item is measured in grams and given a % of daily value (DV) per serving size.
% Daily Values are the FDA recommended amounts to eat of each nutrient based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. This number gives consumers an easy way to see if a certain nutrient is very high or low at a glance.
For reference, below are the FDA recommended macronutrient daily values in grams, calories and percentage:
Protein: 50 grams = 200 calories (10% total DV)
Fat: 78 grams = 702 calories (35% total DV)
Total Carbohydrates: 275 grams = 1,100 calories (55% total DV)
Total Calories = 2,002 calories
Please note dietary requirements for people vary. A six foot, active person exercising for one hour per day may easily burn over 3,000 calories in a day. A petite person with a sedentary lifestyle may burn under 2,000.
There are several types of dietary fats: saturated, mono- and poly- unsaturated, and trans. Total Fat includes all fats present.
Please note, nutrition labels may not always show all the fat types listed below. The FDA requires Total Fat and Saturated Fat to be on the label, as well as Trans fat if there is more than 0.5g per serving. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are optional.
Mono- and poly- unsaturated fats are considered “healthy fats.” You want most of your fat to be this kind. Since these types of fats aren’t a health risk (unless eaten in very massive quantities) the FDA does not require them to be listed.
Saturated fats are naturally occurring and can be found in animal products or tropical oils such as palm or coconut oil. Although necessary in the human body for functions such as hormonal development, too much can raise cholesterol and cause health risks5. The American Heart Association’s (AHA) daily recommendation is about 13g per day (based on a 2,000 cal/day diet).
Trans fats are either found naturally in certain animal products, or they are created by food manufacturers. Typically when you hear about trans fats being bad people are talking about processed foods. Food manufacturers often hydrogenate foods so they are less reactive to temperature and climate, making them shelf stable. The tradeoff however is your body then has more difficulty digesting the chemically processed food.
Some manufacturers will purposefully make serving sizes small to avoid listing trans fat. An easy way to be sure if a food has any trans fat is by checking out the ingredients list. “Hydrogenated oil”, “margarine”, “shortening”, “vegetable oil” and “lard” are all types of trans fats.
Cholesterol is a vital substance needed for forming cells and supports proper hormonal development. Your body makes all the cholesterol you need in your liver. Other sources come from food, primarily saturated fats and animal proteins.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance. Too much can build up in your blood and body, causing blockages. Moderating your dietary cholesterol intake and consuming fibrous foods will help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Sodium is an electrolyte, mineral and an essential nutrient found in many foods. It’s most commonly found in table salt (sodium chloride). Your body needs sodium for your muscles and nerves to function smoothly, and to maintain a balance of fluids.
Like many things, sodium is good in moderation. Too much can raise blood pressure, too little can disrupt nervous function and cause dehydration.
Be aware of sodium amounts because it is often added for flavor and to help preserve foods. According to the FDA, as a general guide, 5% DV or less of sodium per serving is considered low, and 20% or more of sodium per serving is considered high.2
Carbohydrates are essential nutrients your body uses as energy. Carbohydrates can come in the form of sugars, starches, and fiber. Total Carbohydrates is the amount of all these together.
Carbohydrates are generally categorized into either simple or complex. Simple carbs digest quickly and raise your blood sugar quickly. Complex carbs digest slower and provide more steady energy. Examples of simple carbs are sugars, syrup, fruit juice concentrate, and some fruits. Complex carbs are typically vegetables and whole grains like brown rice, oats, barley, rye and quinoa.
Dietary Fiber cannot be digested nor can it be broken down into sugar like most carbohydrates. Fiber can help lower blood cholesterol, stabilize glucose levels, and help move food through your digestive system.
Total Sugars includes sugars naturally present in a food plus any Added Sugar. Naturally occurring sugars like those found in fruits are typically healthy, but added sugars are not necessary and added for flavor. Try to avoid added sugars as much as possible.
Try to get one fist sized serving of complex carbohydrates per meal.
Protein is an important part of a balanced diet that helps with fat loss and muscle gain. Protein
is commonly found in animal products such as chicken, beef, fish, yogurt, eggs and also found in plant-based options such as tofu, spirulina, and legumes. Your body needs proteins for many bodily functions, as well as building muscle, hair, nails and bones.
Try to get one palm sized serving, about 4-6 ounces, of protein per meal.
Vitamins & Minerals
Following this section are vitamins and minerals. You may see them listed as a percentage or by weight: mcg = microgram or mg = milligram.
Vitamins and minerals are essential micronutrients your body needs in order to function properly. Foods containing lots of different vitamins and minerals are always a great choice!
This is a lot of information to take in, we understand that!
Do your best to make yourself more aware and in time you will have practiced reading nutrition labels enough to be able to decipher between your plethora of available options.
Bottom line, when reading a nutrition facts label, look for whole foods you recognize in the ingredients list and avoid things you can’t pronounce. Aim for items with more fiber, vitamins and minerals.