Reading a nutrition facts label is vital to eating healthier, but it can be confusing. Learn what the sections and numbers mean on a label.
Have you ever looked at the nutrition facts label on a food you are buying (or eating) and wonder what it all means? What are the most important things to look at? What are good and bad numbers for it all?
The nutrition facts label is the boxed label that is found on the side or back of most packaged food or drinks. It has details on the nutrient content of the product and can be used to determine which food is better for you and your family, and what you should limit.
*Please note, I am not a healthcare provider, but just summarizing the information on each of these items from research around the web and personal experience*
Originally Published On: January 4, 2018
Last Updated On: April 21, 2020
The first thing to look at on any nutrition label is the serving size. This number tells you the suggested amount for one serving but also is the basis for the entire label. All of the measurements on the label are appropriate measurements for one serving. For example, in this label, the serving size is 1 cup. If you only eat half of a cup, then all of your nutrition information is cut in half.
You want to pay close attention to the serving size as well, and make sure to measure your food out, because most serving sizes are smaller than what Americans tend to eat. 1 cup may sound like a lot, but if you measure the food on your plate, you usually will grab more than the suggestion.
If you are comparing two foods for their nutritional information, make sure you are comparing with the same serving size. If they are different, then you need to calculate the numbers to be able to compare the two.
The second number, the servings per container, tells you how much is in a box. So in this example, a serving size of 1 cup with two servings in the package means there are two total cups in the box.
Daily Value %
The daily value percentages are always based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Not everyone needs 2,000 calories per day. Some need more, and others need less. In general, something that has 5% or less is considered to be low, while an amount of 20% or more is regarded as a high amount. You want to stay at about 100% of each item in a day.
The daily value makes it quick and easy to compare one food to another as long as the serving size is similar. If you are trying to limit your sodium, and product A has 20%, and product B has 10%, but they both have the same serving size, then product B is the better option for you.
Nutrients on the Nutrition Label
Nutrients to Limit
Fat, cholesterol, and sodium are the primary three nutrients that you should try to limit in your foods. Americans tend to overeat these foods, and it may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure.
Ok, scare tactic out of the way, let’s look at each individually. When you look at the fat content, you want to focus on the separate numbers because they all do something slightly different. The healthier foods tend to contain little or no saturated fats or trans fats. Adults should consume less than 10% of their daily calories from these fats.
Cholesterol is known to lead to heart problems, so should be consumed in moderation. Looking at the number of milligrams, a heart-healthy adult should have less than 300 per day, and those with heart disease or other cardiac issues should aim for 200 or less.
Sodium should also be taken in moderation. It’s so easy to overdo the salt and sodium because it’s in so many things that we often don’t even think about. You should aim for 2,300 milligrams or less per day. Your body needs some sodium in it, but not in the amounts that we tend to take in.
The Good Nutrients
Those nutrients in blue, the dietary fiber and all the vitamins below the thick black line, are the nutrients that you want to get as much of as possible.
“Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. For example, getting enough calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis, a condition that results in brittle bones as one ages. Eating a diet high in dietary fiber promotes healthy bowel function. Additionally, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
If you notice, the protein doesn’t have a daily value percentage applied to it. So often, people are concerned about getting enough protein, especially when they hear about someone who eats a vegetarian or vegan diet. But so many foods have protein in them besides just meat.
Protein: “A %DV is required to be listed if a claim is made for protein, such as ‘high in protein’. Otherwise, unless the food is meant for use by infants and children under 4 years old, none is needed. Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern for adults and children over 4 years of age.”
Nutrition Label Changes
In 2016, the requirements for a nutrition facts label were updated. Some of the packages you find now should have the newer label, and all manufacturers are required to start using them by July 26, 2018. Most of the information is still the same; it’s just presented in a slightly different way. My favorite update is the addition of the “added sugar” row. I try to limit our added sugars as much as possible, but I am ok with natural sugars. You would have a hard time finding anything in my house with high-fructose corn syrup in it! The serving size and servings per container are in a more substantial and bolder print since that often gets overlooked. Vitamins A and C will not be required since deficiencies in those are rare now, but Vitamin D and Potassium will be mandatory.
26 thoughts on “How to Read the Basics of a Nutrition Label”
This is an A++ guide to nutrition labels. I recently crossed paths with someone who had the… misguided idea to scribble out nutrition labels in the name of “body positivity”… but isn’t ignoring nutrient needs the opposite of loving and caring for your body?
There’s a big difference between being ok with your body the way it is, and not doing what you can to nurture your body.
Thank you for sharing this very informative post. Too often we are eating without knowing what’s in our food and also we eat without knowing what our body really needs.
It’s so easy to ignore the information on the label, but it’s so important to know what we are putting in our body!
I’d never even noticed the labels changed so much, but wow, they look so different. Shows how much attention I pay! 🙂 Tho, admittedly I didn’t really start reading labels closely until the past few years.
A few companies have changed them, but they don’t have to change until July of this year.
I appreciate this information as I never really understood what everything meant or how it pertained to me. My mother looks at labels but I never paid attention.
Happy to help! The food label can tell you a lot about the foods if you know what to look for!
This is awesome. It really pays to be able to read the nutrition labels. You’d be surprised at how much sodium there is in our favourite foods! I wish ALL packaged food have it though. I still find the odd one that doesn’t.
The sodium levels in food is astounding, as well as the amount of sugar. It’s crazy!
Love the idea of the added sugars being part of the label. However, we are in Canada, and it will be a while for those to be added. Thanks for an informative post.
I can’t wait for the labels to be mandatory with the added sugars! I don’t mind natural sugars, but try to avoid added sugars when at all possible.
I had no idea about the added sugar line. That is a great new addition because that is truly a hidden ingredient in a lot of products. Thank for making reading label a little easier.
I’m so happy the added sugars will be part of the label! That and sodium are hidden in way too many of our foods.
I’m a diabetic so reading nutritional labels is key for my health…Even my young son has learned how to look at a label and see if it’s safe for Mama to eat and what portion sizes… He is so sweet and will look at everything we put into our cart…
Aww, what a great helper you have! Reading labels is so important for anyone with health restraints.
I’m not much of a calorie counter, I read the ingredients more. But I do like the new label more than the one that they have now. Its easier to read.
I agree, the ingredients are just as important, but that new label will be nice to have!
Oh, this is actually really helpful! I went too long without know how to understand anything on a label, but even then I only understood some basics. This helps break it down a bit more for me!
I was the same way, for the longest time I didn’t even look at the label because it didn’t mean anything to me anyways!
Sometimes it is really easy to get confused by what is good and bad for you on nutrition labels. Thank you for this really helpful guide. Nutrition labels speak a lot louder than “healthy” box advertising, afterall, what does “reduced fat” really mean?
Ugh, don’t even get me started on the “box claims”, they are absurd. That’s why it’s so important to know how to read the labels for sure.
This is such a great an informative post! I know how difficult it can be to read a nutrition level but this is such an ideal guide.
This is just the basics, there is so much more you can learn from the label. But at least knowing this will help make better decisions.
I always look at this nutrition label so i will know this label will be good for my health and for my family’s health.
Me too, I love the way the new label looks and the changes that are being made.