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Reading a Nutrition Label

woman reading a nutrition labelUnderstanding the information on a nutrition label can often be a confusing task. This is unfortunate as the provided information can aid you in choosing the right foods needed to live a healthy life.

Nutritional labels are composed of five sections:

  1. Serving size
  2. Percent daily value sidebar
  3. Calories
  4. Nutrients
  5. Daily value footnote

Serving size

At the very top of the nutrition label sits the serving size information. A package's serving size is extremely important since the rest of the nutritional information on the label is based on serving size.

There are two components of the serving size data:

  • Serving size: Serving size shows the amount of food that the values are based on and determines how many servings are included in the product. Be aware about how much of the food makes up one serving. If a package of macaroni and cheese states there are 200 calories per servings and 4 servings per package, and you eat the whole package then you are consuming a total of 800 calories, (200 calories x 4 servings) not simply the 200 calories per serving.
  • Serving per container or package: This value gives information about how many servings are in the whole container. For example, if you are looking at the label for a bag of six cookies and the serving size is two cookies, then the total number of servings in the whole package is three. 

The percent daily value (%DV)

Located on the outer right-hand side of the label, the %DV tells you whether the food contains a high or low level of a specific nutrient. For example, if the label shows there is 18% DV of total fats in a food, then if you eat one serving size you will be consuming 18% of the recommended total fats for that day.

The %DV can be a useful tool in comparing different brands in order to make the healthiest choice. to compare foods since you can easily see the nutritional differences.  

Calories and calories from fat

Calories are a measurement of the energy you will receive from consuming food. The food label shows the number of calories per serving for the food. The label also shows the number of calories from fat in each serving.  

According to the FDA, the average person should consume around 2,000 calories per day. Eating excess calories can lead to becoming obese and overweight.

Nutrients

The first three items listed on all nutrition labels are also the three you should pay close attention to:

  • Total fat (broken down into saturated fat and trans fat)
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium

You should limit the amount you consume of each of these . Here are the recommended values for the average 2,000 calorie diet:

  • Total fat – 65 grams
    • Saturated fatty acids – 20 grams
  • Cholesterol milligrams – 300 milligrams
  • Sodium milligrams – 2400 milligrams

Eating too much fat (especially saturated fat and trans fat), cholesterol, and/or sodium can lead to various health problems, including chronic diseases like heart disease and high blood pressure.

Five nutrients that you want to try to eat in large amounts include:

  • Dietary fiber – 25 grams
  • Vitamin A – 5000 IU
  • Vitamin C – 60 milligrams
  • Calcium – 1000 milligrams
  • Iron – 18 milligrams

Quick breakdown on other nutrient information (with Recommended Daily Allowances)

  • Fat: Fat is a good source of energy, but too much fat can lead to many health problems, including heart disease and obesity. (Recommended Daily Allowance: 65 grams)
  • Saturated and Trans Fats: Can cause heart disease and high cholesterol. Keep the consumption of these fats to a minimum. (RDA: 20 grams of Saturated Fat; 0 Trans Fat)
  • Cholesterol: Most of the cholesterol needed by people is naturally produced in the liver. Additional cholesterol from foods can lead to the blocking of arteries, resulting in strokes or heart attacks. (RDA: 300 milligrams)
  • Sodium: Often found in large amounts in prepackaged foods (instant noodles and canned foods), sodium is used by the body for nerve transmission and maintaining a proper body fluid balance. Too much sodium can result in high blood pressure. (RDA: 2400 milligrams)
  • Total carbohydrates: Comprised of fiber, sugars, and other carbohydrates, "carbs" make up most of the calories you eat daily. As a rule your carbohydrate intake should only come from whole grain cereals and breads. Furthermore it is recommended that your carbohydrate consumption should be comprised of 50-60% complex carbs, the carbs found in vegetables, breads, and pasta. Complex carbs take more time to digest since they typically contain more fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Your consumption of the more digestible simple carbs should come from fruits and dairy products. (RDA: 300 grams)     
  • Dietary fiber:  Helps promote healthy bowel movements. (RDA: 25 grams)
  • Sugars: The sugars found in fruit contain fiber, water, and other healthy nutrients. The sugars found in candy, snack foods, and sodas do not have these healthy nutrients and are simply extra calories that are consumed.
  • Proteins: The body uses protein to build, maintain, and replace all its tissue. This includes your all your muscles, organs, and immune system. Additionally the body uses protein to create hemoglobin, which transports the oxygen in your blood throughout the body. (RDA: 50 grams)
  • Vitamin A: Vitamin A is used by the body for improved eye-sight and healthy skin. (5000 IU)
  • Vitamin C: Improves the immune system, heals wounds, and connects tissues. (RDA: 60 milligrams)
  • Calcium: Keeps bones and teeth strong and improves the contraction of muscles and blood vessels. (RDA: 1000 milligrams)
  • Iron: Necessary for oxygen transportation and cell growth. (RDA: 18 milligrams)

Daily Values Footnote: If the food label is large enough, it will likely have a section that the daily recommended amount of specific nutrients. This portion tells you the amount of nutrients recommended for the 2,000 calorie daily intake. This section should be used as a guide in your daily consumption of foods.  

Other information

Foods that are labeled with:

  • Reduced fat means that a product has 25% less fat than the same regular brand.
  • Light means that the product has 50% less fat than the same regular product.
  • Low fat means a product has less than 3 grams of fat per serving.

Always try to choose foods with low levels of cholesterol and saturated/trans fats.

Choose fish instead of meat! Fish contains a lower amount of saturated fat and may aid in preventing heart disease. The recommended fish to eat include salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, and mackerel.

Additional resources

How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label (FDA)

Figuring Out Food Labels (Nemours Foundation)

Nutrition Facts Labels: Understanding DVs, RDAs, and DRIs (Helpguide.org)

Food and Nutrition Information (American Dietetic Association)

Revealing Trans Fats (FDA)

 

Authored by:  Hall Health Center Health Promotion staff
Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Family Health Clinic staff (DK), February 2014