Understanding nutrition facts allows you to make informed choices about the foods you eat. The nutrition facts label provides key details about a food’s nutritional content, like calories, fat, sodium, and vitamins. This standardized label was first introduced in the early 1990s and has recently been updated by the FDA with new information about added sugars, vitamins, and minerals.
The sections of the nutrition facts label include:
- Serving size and number of servings per container
- Percent daily values (%DV) for key nutrients
- List of nutrients like fat, sodium, carbohydrates, protein
- Vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, and potassium
- Added sugars
But what do all these numbers and percentages mean? And how can you use them to build a healthy diet? This guide will break down each section of nutrition facts labels, explain the daily values (DVs), and give tips for choosing foods high in nutrients to get more of, like dietary fiber, and low in nutrients to get less of, like saturated fat.
You’ll also learn how to:
- Compare nutrition facts across similar food products
- Identify serving sizes
- Understand claims like “light” or “low-fat”
- Spot hidden added sugars
- Get more vitamin D, calcium, and potassium
With nutrition facts labels as your guide, you can evaluate any food item to see how it fits into your nutritional needs and health goals.
When I first started looking at nutrition labels, I had no clue what those tiny measurements meant. Now we’re talking grams and milliliters and percentages – can’t we just list the nutrients in donuts and pizza slices?
Well, turns out there’s a method to the madness. Let’s break it down.
First up is the serving size. Food manufacturers aren’t just picking random amounts to list on the label. The serving sizes are based on the amount of food that people typically eat or drink at one time.
- 1 cup of yogurt
- 1 slice of bread
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
The serving size is not a recommendation of how much you should eat – just the common portion. This makes it easy to compare nutrition facts between different products.
So be sure to check the serving size when you glance at the label. Is it close to the amount you would normally eat? If you’re housing half the tub of ice cream in one sitting, you’re getting 2-3 servings worth of calories and fat – not the amounts listed for 1⁄2 cup!
Servings Per Container
Along with the serving size, the label lists the number of servings per container. This little number can make a big difference.
Let’s say you buy a pint of your favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The serving size says 1⁄2 cup, with 4 servings per container. So if you demolish the entire pint, you’re eating 4 servings!
- Serving size: 1/2 cup
- Servings per container: 4
Make sense? Check this number before digging into the whole package of anything – even if it feels like a single portion.
Calories Per Serving
Next up – calories. The nutrition label shows how many calories are in one serving of food.
To figure out the calories for multiple servings, you need to multiply:
Calories per serving x # of servings = total calories
So if you eat 2 servings of frozen pizza with 270 calories each, that’s 540 total calories.
I’ll be honest – I’ve definitely just looked at the calories on a nutrition label and assumed that was for the whole package. Rookie mistake! Glance at the serving size and do the math for a true calorie count.
Comparing Serving Sizes
When comparing nutrition labels on similar products, be sure the serving sizes match up.
- Brand A lists 110 calories per 1⁄2 cup
- Brand B lists 150 calories per 1 cup
At first glance, Brand B looks higher in calories. But the serving size is different! To properly compare, adjust the serving sizes.
Now you can see that Brand A actually has more calories per standardized serving!
Check out those sneaky serving sizes every time for an apples-to-apples (or cookies-to-cookies) comparison.
Now we’ve covered the critical serving size info, let’s dive into the good stuff – nutrients!
The nutrition facts label lists out the key vitamins, minerals, and other components in your food. But with so many numbers and percentages, it can feel overwhelming.
Let me break down the main nutrients and show you how to use ’em.
The Focus Nutrients
First, take a look at the first few rows of the label – calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein. These are the “focus nutrients” that impact your health the most.
- Fat, cholesterol, and sodium are limits – you want to get less of them.
- Fiber, vitamins, and minerals are goals – aim to get more of these nutrients.
When comparing products, check the amounts of these nutrients per serving. Choose options lower in the “limit” nutrients and higher in the “goal” nutrients.
Percent Daily Value
Confused by the %DV? No worries – I’ll break it down.
The %DV shows how much each nutrient in a serving contributes to your total daily needs. The daily values are recommended amounts for someone eating 2,000 calories per day. This is the number used for general nutrition advice.
- 30% DV of calcium means one serving provides 30% of the daily need for calcium.
- 5% DV of saturated fat means one serving provides 5% of the daily limit for saturated fat.
Use these guidelines for %DV:
- 5% or less is low
- 20% or more is high
Aim for a higher %DV of “goal” nutrients like fiber and vitamin D. For “limit” nutrients like saturated fat, choose foods with a lower %DV.
Here’s a trick I use – look for 5/20. Choose products with:
- 5% DV or less of saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium
- 20% DV or more of vitamins and minerals
This ensures you’re getting more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff!
Nutrients With No %DV
Some nutrients on the label don’t list a %DV:
No recommended intake. Just avoid them!
No %DV unless a claim is made about protein content.
No recommended limit has been set.
For these “no %DV” nutrients, use the gram amounts to compare products.
Comparing Nutrients in Foods
Let’s practice comparing nutrition labels!
Imagine you’re choosing between two yogurts – Greek yogurt A and regular yogurt B:
- Yogurt A is lower in calories and added sugar and higher in protein and calcium.
- Yogurt B is higher in calories and sugar and lower in protein.
Based on the nutrients, it seems like Yogurt A is the winner!
See how easy that was? Follow this process when comparing nutrition facts between different brands and products. Focus on the key nutrients for each food category to become a nutrition facts pro!
Now that you’ve got the basics down let’s talk about how to use the nutrition facts label to support your health goals and dietary needs.
The label isn’t just a bunch of random numbers – it’s designed to help you build a healthy, balanced diet.
General Dietary Guidelines
The nutrients and %DVs on the label are based on recommendations from health experts about how much of each nutrient you should get daily. These come from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans put out by the USDA and Department of Health.
Some of the key guidelines include:
- Limit added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
- Focus on whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy
- Vary your protein sources
- Drink mostly water and low-fat milk
When choosing foods at the store, use the label to find options that help you meet these goals.
If you follow a specific diet for health reasons or personal needs, customize your nutrition search even further.
- Vegetarians can seek foods high in iron, zinc, and protein. Check the label for grams of protein per serving.
- Diabetics should choose foods low in carbs and added sugar. Look for a low %DV of total carbs and 0g added sugars.
- Low sodium diets require picking foods with low mg and %DV for sodium. Compare sodium amounts and go for the lowest.
The nutrition facts label has all the data to identify foods suited for your individual diet.
An easy way to visualize a balanced diet is using MyPlate, which shows how your plate should look for a healthy meal:
- Half fruits and veggies
- Quarter lean protein
- Quarter whole grains
When shopping, get familiar with the amounts of each food group in common items. Use the label to build meals that approximately match the MyPlate template.
Aim for variety within each food group as well – swap out vegetable and grain options to help reach the recommendations.
By now, you’re a pro at dissecting those nutrition labels! Let’s tackle one last piece – added sugars.
What’s the difference between added sugars and total sugars on the label?
- Total sugars include both natural sugars (like in fruit and dairy) and added sugars.
- Added sugars refers specifically to the extra sugars added during processing, like table sugar, syrups, and honey.
Why does this distinction matter? Consuming too much added sugar can negatively impact your health and diet:
- Excess calories without nutrients
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Weight gain
- Blood sugar spikes
To limit your intake, check the added sugars amount in grams and the %DV. Follow the recommended limit of no more than 10% DV per day.
When comparing products, go for the lowest amount of added sugar. And watch out for sneaky sources like sugary yogurts, cereal, ketchup, and protein bars.
For packaged foods and drinks, ingredients are listed by weight. The closer to the top of the list, the more of that item is included. So if some form of sugar is near the top – beware!
Stick to mostly whole foods like fruits, veggies, and unprocessed grains to keep added sugar low. Use the label to find and limit extra sweet stuff. Your body (and taste buds) will thank you!
The classic nutrition facts label we’ve been reviewing is getting some high-tech upgrades! Here are some cool, interactive features to look for.
Some packages now include QR codes that you can scan with your smartphone’s camera. Scanning the code pulls up even more detailed nutrition information about the product from an online database.
This extra content may include:
- Full ingredient lists
- Other nutrients not on the label, like omega-3s
- Interactive nutrition charts
- Dietary recommendations
It’s an easy way to get additional facts at your fingertips!
Using Nutrition Apps For A Healthy Diet
Speaking of smartphones, download a nutrition app like Cronometer. You can use the app to scan barcodes on packaged foods and pull up the nutrition facts.
The app saves your scanned items for tracking. This makes it easy to:
- Monitor your daily calories and nutrients
- Set goals for nutrients or MyPlate amounts
- Spot unhealthy patterns in your diet
Nutrition Facts Variations
So far, we’ve focused on the standard nutrition label. But not all labels are created equal! Here are some common ways nutrition facts can vary:
Raw vs. Cooked
Nutrients can change when food is cooked. Labels for raw items like chicken or rice reflect nutrient amounts before cooking.
- Meat shrinks when cooked, so the serving size may decrease.
- Water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C decrease with cooking.
- Some nutrients become more bioavailable with cooking.
Brand Name vs. Store Brand
Nutrition content usually doesn’t differ between brand names and generic products. But check the labels to be sure – especially if one claims to be “healthy” or “light.” Marketing doesn’t always match nutrition!
Organic & GMO-Free
These labels indicate how food was produced but don’t directly affect nutritional content. Minor differences may include:
- More antioxidants in organic produce.
- GMO crops are nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO.
- No major nutrients are higher or lower.
When eating combination foods like casseroles, sandwiches, or burritos, you’ll have to do a little math to calculate totals based on individual ingredients.
- Estimate portions of each component.
- Check labels to find values per serving.
- Multiply and add to find approximately total calories, carbs, protein, etc.
It takes some work, but you can analyze mixed meals too!
We’ve covered everything from serving sizes to sodium to sneaky added sugars. You’re now a nutrition label expert!
To recap, always check:
- The serving size – is it close to the amount you eat?
- Total nutrients and calories – for the entire package, not just per serving.
- Limit nutrients like saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar.
- Get enough of the beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Compare similar products using nutrients, %DVs, and ingredients.
While the nutrition label provides valuable guidance, don’t forget the big picture:
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and dairy.
- Limit sweets, salty snacks, sugary drinks, and refined carbs like white bread.
- Pay attention to portions – don’t overload your plate.
- Cook at home when possible using whole food ingredients.
Along with a balanced eating approach, the nutrition facts label is an awesome tool to build healthier, more informed food habits!
The world of food labels continues to evolve! Here are some innovations on the horizon:
- More vitamins and minerals like potassium may be added to give a fuller nutritional picture.
- Calls for added details like the amount of processed ingredients or antibiotics used on meat products.
- Increased use of QR codes and blockchain technology for food traceability.
- A potential shift from standard serving sizes to personalized nutrition facts based on age, gender, activity level, etc.
- Apps providing real-time feedback on how food choices impact your body, similar to activity trackers.
- AI-powered recommendations for optimal grocery purchases and meal planning personalized to your needs and preferences.
While we can’t predict the future, it’s clear the power of nutrition information will only grow. New technologies will likely provide more customized, detailed, and actionable data to guide your food choices!
Do you have questions about nutrition labels? I’ve got you covered! Here are answers to some common FAQs:
How are serving sizes determined on nutrition labels?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets standards for serving sizes based on the amount typically eaten. For example, 1 cup cereal or 2 tablespoons peanut butter. This standardization allows comparisons across similar products.
What’s the difference between calories from fat versus total calories?
Total calories include all calories from carbs, protein, and fat. Calories from fat show only the calories that came specifically from the fat content. This gives extra info on the fat breakdown, but the total calories include them all.
Why are some nutrients listed without a %DV amount?
Trans fat, protein, and total sugars don’t have a %DV on labels. No daily recommendation has been established for these, so there is no percentage to calculate. For these, focus on the grams to compare products.
How can I use nutrition labels to reduce my sodium intake?
Check the milligrams and %DV of sodium, and choose options lower in both amounts. Compare similar products and go with the lowest sodium versions. Aim for foods with less than 5% DV of sodium.
Do nutrition labels accurately reflect ingredients and nutrients?
The FDA rigorously regulates nutrition labeling. Companies must test nutrient content and provide evidence confirming the accuracy of labels. However, some natural variability means values won’t be exact.
What does the “added sugars” section tell me that total sugars doesn’t?
Added sugars shows only the sugars added during processing, while total sugars includes naturally occurring ones too. Limiting added sugar provides a clearer picture of excess sweeteners.
Are nutrition facts the same globally, or do labels vary by country?
Nutrition labels differ somewhat by country based on local regulations. But the basic sections like serving size, calories, and nutrients are standard globally to allow comparisons.
I hope these answers help explain some of the common nutrition label FAQs! Let me know if you have any other questions.