How To Read Nutrition Facts Labels

If you’ve been following along with the blog, you’ll recall several references to nutrition facts labels, which are found on packaged food products and can assist you in making health-promoting decisions about food. Specifically, these labels may come in handy when considering dietary fat, cholesterol, sodium, fiber, and sugar. 

With countless packaged food products available these days, nutrition facts labels can also be overwhelming and confusing, which is frustrating and definitely not health-promoting. Read on to learn how to understand them and use them to your benefit.

The graphic below is from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is an example of a nutrition facts label for macaroni and cheese. It’s divided into sections and color-coded for explanation purposes, but note that there are not sections or colors on any labels that you’ll see on products you’re purchasing.

  • Serving Size indicates the amount of food/beverage that is referenced on the Nutrition Facts label. The Servings Per Container indicates how many servings are included in the entire package. So, one serving of macaroni and cheese is one cup, and there are two cups total in the entire package.
  • Calories are a measure of energy received by ingesting a food/beverage. In the example, there are 250 calories per one cup of macaroni and cheese, which means there are 500 calories total in the package.

Note: if you’ve not yet read the previous posts about dietary fat, sodium, and fiber, click the links to do that now.

  • Trans Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium may be of particular interest here depending on individual health concerns. As a reminder, it’s best to avoid intake of Trans Fats. Some people may also be advised to limit intake of Saturated Fat and/or Cholesterol. Stay tuned for future posts on both of those.
  • Fiber and Sugar are of particular interest here. We know that most of us don’t get enough fiber and that fiber is good for stabilizing blood sugar. Use this simple math to choose foods that are a good source of fiber:
    • Divide the grams of Carbohydrates by 10. The result is how many grams of fiber you want. In the sample label above, there are 31 grams of Total Carbohydrate. 31/10 = 3.1 desired grams of Dietary Fiber.
    • Compare that number with grams of Dietary Fiber listed. As you can see, this particular variety of macaroni and cheese contains 0 grams of Dietary Fiber, which is less than the desired 3.1 grams, so you may want to look around for a whole grain variety, which would likely contain some fiber.
             Whole grain pasta is a good source of fiber and is often dark in color.

As you can see, there are a couple other things that could be considered when looking at a Nutrition Facts label. The Footnote (5) and The Percent Daily Value (%DV) (6) both provide additional information, though they are in reference to needs of 2,000 calories per day, which may not be applicable to everyone since calorie needs vary from person to person. You’ll also notice that there are some vitamins and minerals listed on the sample label above in blue. Generally speaking, the higher the percentage of vitamins and minerals the better. Note though, that vitamins and minerals are found in high quantities of foods that don’t usually have a label, e.g. fresh fruits and vegetables, so you’ll hopefully be getting vitamins and minerals from those foods, too.

One more thing: as if there wasn’t already enough to consider when trying to decipher Nutrition Facts labels, the FDA has issued an update to the label and has begun rolling out changes. Below is a graphic representing the old label (left) vs. the new label (right), which will likely be phased in over the next couple of years. The most important thing to note on the new label is the Added Sugars, which highlights the amount of sugar added to a food or drink, i.e. not found naturally in the product. Generally speaking, the lower the amount of Added Sugars, the better, but stay tuned for a future post on all things sugar.

Whew, that was a lot. If you made it all the way through, you’ll hopefully now have a better understanding of how to use Nutrition Facts labels to your benefit. Give them a look the next time you have a few minutes to spare while grocery shopping, and know that understanding and using them becomes easier with practice. As always, don’t hesitate to email with any questions!