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How to Read Food Nutrition Labels

By Julie Wuellner
Updated on 13. Oct. 2020

Nutrition labels can be confusing. Here, our top tips on how to read and decode food nutrition labels so you know exactly what you're eating.

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The nutrition label was created by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993 as a way for consumers to be more mindful and educated about what they were putting into their bodies and feeding to their children. Unfortunately, it is not very clear what the information on these labels is telling us; between grams and percent of daily values it is easy to get confused.

The first thing to keep in mind when looking at a nutrition label is that it's daily requirements of nutrients are calculated based on a diet of 2,000-2,500 calories per day. This is an average calorie count, but that number can vary quite a bit depending on factors such as physical activity, health issues, and even the climate where you live. On the labels, you will see %DV; this stands for the percentage of daily value and is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.

Be mindful of serving sizes.

The first thing you see when you look at a nutrition label is the serving size. This number is usually provided in tablespoons, cups, or pieces with a metric gram measurement following in parenthesis. This number is fairly standardized to make it simpler to compare food items to one another. The serving size of a food item will determine the number of calories and the percentages of various nutrients. This is an important piece of information to look at when reading a nutrition label so you know how much you are supposed to eat. It is often the case that small, seemingly single-serving packages of food actually contain 2-3 servings. This is a problem because many people might not realize that they are eating more than one serving and therefore consuming more calories and fat.

The next item you will see on the nutrition label is the calories and calories from fat. Calories are the amount of energy you get from food. There is not a percentage for what percentage of your recommended daily calorie intake (2,000-2,500) a serving provides, so that is math you would have to do on your own. Calories from fat provide, not surprisingly, the number of calories in serving of that food item that is provided by fat.

As a standard rule, the FDA says that a food item with 40 calories is considered to be low in calories, while anything with 400 or more is considered to be high in calories. Any item that falls between 100 and 399 is thought to have a moderate amount of calories.

Understanding nutrient counts.

The following section shows various nutrients. Total fat (which includes saturated fat and trans fat), sodium, and cholesterol should all be limited, while vitamins A & C, iron, calcium, and fiber do not have to be limited. These measurements are labeled two ways, the first is in grams and the second is in %DV, which is out of 100%. The FDA suggests following the general rule of if a serving of food has 5 or less %DV it is low in that nutrient and when it is 20 or more %DV it is high in that nutrient.

There are a couple of exceptions for some nutrients that do not have %DV listed on most packages. Protein is only required to be listed as a %DV if the item makes claims specific to protein, such as ‘protein-rich.’

There is also no %DV for trans fat because scientists were not able to come up with an amount they thought was logical for the amount needed per day. This likely has to do with the fact that trans fats have been linked to an increase in bad cholesterol levels in the blood.

Pay attention to the ingredient list.

Another important part of food packaging to pay attention to is the ingredient list. Although this is not part of the actual nutrition label, it is a very important part of the label on packaged foods. It is a good idea to read through the ingredients in your food before buying it. As a rule of thumb, stay away from items with ingredients you cannot pronounce. It is also good to know that ingredients are listed in order of amount, so the first ingredient listed makes up most of the product. So, if sugar (or one of its various relatives such as sucrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, agave syrup, among others) is one of the first ingredients it is best to stay away from those products.  

When shopping at the grocery store, it is best to stay away from packaged goods as much as you can and eat whole foods but when that is not possible be sure to pay attention to what you are buying and eating. Take a look at the nutrition label and see if the item you are interested in is providing you with valuable nutrition. A good practice when you bring home-packaged foods is to immediately measure out the servings and place them into individual containers to curb overeating. This way you will easily be able to eat one serving at a time. Pay attention to what is on the ingredients list, staying as close to real, whole foods as possible.

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