How to Read Nutrition Labels

Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D.
nutrition facts

Reading food labels can be overwhelming, especially if you're not a nutrition guru. However, knowing a few tips and tricks can help you become an expert nutrition label reader and make the best food choices for you and your family.

Serving Size

The first thing you'll see on a nutrition facts label is the serving size used when calculating nutrition content of the food. Serving size information shows the portion of food being analyzed, and how many portions there are in the package. For example, one serving size might be five crackers, but there could eight servings (40 crackers) in the entire box.

Calories

The calorie content of food is also listed on the nutrition facts label. Calories listed on the food label are for each serving size. For example, one serving may contain 100 calories but if there are four servings in the package, you'll be getting 400 calories total if you consume the entire package. Right below the total calories per serving, you'll see the number of calories from fat. Fat provides 9 calories per gram, and you'll see the number of total fat grams per serving on the following line.

Fat

The number of fat grams per serving of your food item is the next item on nutrition facts labels. You'll see the number of total fat grams, and fat grams from saturated and trans fats. Make sure trans fat reads 0 grams, and saturated fat should be a low number if you want to keep disease risks low. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 suggest limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your total calorie intake, which is fewer than 23 grams per day when following a 2,000-calorie meal plan.

Cholesterol

The amount of cholesterol in packaged food is also on the nutrition facts label. While the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 suggestion of limiting dietary cholesterol to 300 milligrams daily isn't in the 2015 to 2020 recommendations, Harvard School of Public Health suggests Americans should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.

Sodium

Consuming too much sodium regularly may boost your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, which is why having sodium content on nutrition labels is so important. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 suggest limiting sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams per day to maximize health.

Potassium

The more the better when it comes to potassium, another item that appears on nutrition facts labels. Adequate intake levels for potassium are 4,700 milligrams per day for adults.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are listed on nutrition facts labels in grams and should make up about 45 to 65 percent of your total calorie intake, suggests the Institute of Medicine. This equals 225 to 325 grams of carbs daily if you're eating 2,000 calories. However, if you're going low-carb to shed pounds, it's okay to eat less than this, as the carb recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is just 130 grams per day.

Fiber

Fiber is listed next on nutrition facts labels. The higher the better when it comes to fiber, as this nutrient helps lower disease risks and aids in healthy weight management. Fiber recommendations range from 21 to 25 grams per day for women, and 30 to 38 grams daily for men.

Sugar

You've probably been told sugar is bad for you, and it's important to be aware of added sugar intake. Nutrition facts labels let you know how many grams of sugar are in the food you're eating. However, keep in mind not all sugar is bad for you. Milk, plain yogurt, fruits, and veggies are all sources of natural sugar. However, added sugar is something you'll want to steer clear of as much as possible. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 suggest consuming less than 10 percent of your total calories from added sugar, which is fewer than 23 grams (about 4 1/2 teaspoons) each day for 2,000 calorie diets.

Protein

Next on the list is protein, which is crucial for muscle mass maintenance, growth and development in kids, and healthy weight management. The protein recommended dietary allowance is 46 grams for women, 56 grams for men, and 71 grams for pregnant and breastfeeding women. While these amounts should be considered minimum daily needs, many adults (especially athletes) can benefit from consuming higher amounts of protein.

Percent Daily Values

In the column furthest to the right on nutrition facts labels, you'll see numbers (in bold) written as percentages. These numbers are percent daily values, which are the percentages of adults' daily nutrient requirements (based on 2,000-calorie diets) met by packaged foods. For example, a 16 percent daily value means one serving size of food provides 16 percent of your daily needs for that nutrient if you're eating 2,000 calories per day.

Vitamins and Minerals

On the bottom of nutrition labels, you'll see which vitamins and minerals the food contains. You can also view the percent daily value each vitamin and mineral provides (based on a 2,000-calorie diet).

Nutrition label

Ingredient List

The ingredient list is where you'll be able to see which ingredients are in your favorite packaged foods and drinks. Ingredients on food labels are listed in descending order; that is, the first ingredient on the list is present in the highest amount, and the last ingredient is present in the smallest amount. The ingredients list may also list which allergens are present in the food.

How to Know if a Food Is Healthy

Checking food labels helps determine if the food you're eating is healthy and fits into specific diets. If you're following a low-carb diet, look for foods containing 5 grams of carbs or fewer (or simply abide by your diet's total daily carb allotment). Keep added sugar intake at recommended levels (less than 23 grams per day for a 2,000-calorie diet), and limit saturated fat to fewer than 23 grams per day. Look for foods containing at least 3 grams of fiber per serving as a general rule of thumb, and limit sodium to 2,300 milligrams per day.

If you're shopping on the fly and don't have much time to check labels, focus on total calories, protein, saturated fat, sodium, fiber, and added sugar to determine if food items are healthy enough for your meal plan. If you're going low-carb, be sure to note total grams of carbs per serving in addition to sugar.

Marketing Label Claims

In addition to nutrition label information, product packages may also contain marketing label claims, such as "low-fat," "gluten-free," or "lactose-free." In order for manufacturers to make such claims, they are supposed to abide by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claim guidelines. View the FDA's Food Labeling Guide to find out what's required to make health and nutrition claims on food labels.

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How to Read Nutrition Labels