The nutrition facts label is the fastest place to look to learn how many calories and what nutrients are in a single serving of food. The label includes macronutrient (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) amounts as well as micronutrient amounts of certain vitamins and minerals. Reading the nutrition facts label can also tell you how much sodium, trans fat, and sugar is in a food product.
But food labels can also be confusing if you’re not used to reading them. In this article, we’ll break down just how to read food labels so you know how to understand the information provided the next time you go to the grocery store.
Why is it important to read food labels?
“Typically you can’t know much about a product by simply looking at the package itself,” says Keri Gans, R.D.N., C.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. “However, when you read the nutrition label, important information is revealed.”
Think about it this way: The front of a package is marketing. The words on the front: “healthy,” “fat free,” “naturally sweetened” sound good, but the real information is on the back or on the side. You know not to judge a book by its cover, so don’t judge a cereal box that way either.
What Foods Require a Food Label?
The FDA regulates most food labels, except for meat and poultry which are regulated by the USDA and the FSIS. According to the FDA, a nutrition facts label is voluntary for “raw produce (fruits and vegetables) and fish.” However, a food label is required on the majority of food packages, with a few exceptions, such as “foods that provide no significant nutrition such as instant coffee and most spices.” Beer, wine, and alcoholic spirits are also not currently required to have nutrition facts labels, though this law may be changing soon.
The nutrition facts labels are in the process of being updated. Serving sizes will be adjusted to reflect more typical eating habits, the required vitamin list is changing, calories from fat is going away, and added sugars will be called out. All changes must be rolled out by the end of July 2018 (July 2019 for small companies).
How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label
There are many pieces of information contained within the nutrition facts label. Let’s break them down.
Though this information is listed at the bottom of the nutrition label, it’s the best place to start. Reading it first might even save you time, because depending on what ingredients are included, you might not want to bother reading the rest of the label.
The ingredient list is listed in descending order by weight. Also, if you see a group of ingredients listed together in the ingredients list, for instance, if a food has a proprietary blend, the ingredients of the blend are listed in descending order by weight for that group.
What to look for:
- Short Ingredient Lists — “Ideally the shorter the list, the better,” says Gans. However, don’t toss a food product because its ingredient list is long as some products are packed with a lot of wholesome ingredients. But if you’re reading an ingredient list for bread and it has 30 ingredients, consider putting it back on the shelf.
- Recognizable ingredients — If you are familiar with all of the ingredients on a list — and they’re all healthy — that’s great. But Gans says, “just because you don’t recognize an ingredient doesn’t mean it should be avoided.” For instance, absorbic acid might sound scary, but it’s actually just vitamin C.
- Sugars — Sugar is a recognizable ingredient, but it’s one to be mindful of and until the new nutrition facts labels that call out added sugar are fully rolled out, the ingredient list is more revealing. That’s because sometimes the sugar in a food product is naturally occurring, such as with dairy and fruit. As an example, 1 cup of strawberries has 7 grams of sugar, but also has 2.9 grams of fiber, and lots of vitamin C.
After you read the ingredients, look at the serving size. The numbers on the label are for one serving. It’s important to look to see how large a serving size is, as often there are multiple servings per container. A bag of chips might contain upwards of 11 servings whereas most sodas and sports drinks contain two or two and-a-half servings per bottle.
When the nutrition facts labels are updated, serving sizes will be brought into line with eating habits. After the revamp, the numbers on food labels for 12- and 20-ounces sodas, for example, will be calculated as if they are one serving size. (Serving size is not indicative of healthy portion size.)
The number of calories listed is the number of calories per serving. Going back to the chip example, 150 calories for a serving of chips might not sound terrible, but it’s important to be honest about how many chips you’re really going to eat because there’s a mere 11 chips in one serving.
What does calories from fat mean? Calories from fat will tell you how much fat makes up the total calories. It’s also going the way of the dodo when the nutrition facts label is revamped. Alix Turoff, R.D. and nutritionist at Top Balance Nutrition in New York City points out that “This number is sort of leftover from the ‘fat is bad’ craze,” points out. Good news for foods like guacamole, which gets 75 to 80 percent of its calories from the heart-healthy fat found in avocados.
“Fat keeps us full and makes food more satisfying,” says Paige Benté, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.. That’s because fat digests more slowly than carbs or protein and as a result, helps you feel fuller for longer. Also, when you eat foods high in fat, the body signals the brain that it’s a satisfying food and that you don’t need to eat that much of it. Unfortunately, the salt and sugar we add to these foods can override these signals.
“Total fat tells us how many grams of any kind of fat are in this food — both the good and the bad,” Turoff explains. More important than the whole number is the breakdown.
Benté recommends getting roughly 30% of your daily calories from fat. That equates to 40 grams on a 1,200 calorie diet, and 60 grams on a 1,800 calorie diet.
Some examples foods high in healthy fats include: Avocados, olives, unsalted nuts, seeds, olive oil, and cold water fish.
What to look for:
- Trans fat — This number should be at zero since trans fat can lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol, says Gans.
- Saturated fat — Saturated fats come primarily from animal sources including meat and dairy. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting this to no more than 10% of your daily calorie intake. To determine the percentage of saturated fat in your diet, multiply the gram number by 9 and divide by your total calories consumed.
Cholesterol helps the body form cell membranes, acts as a building block for many hormones, and helps the body create acids that break down dietary fat. It has a bad rep because when there’s too much of it in the bloodstream it can build up on arterial walls and restrict blood flow.
Since the nutrition facts label was last designed, research has revealed that dietary cholesterol (the cholesterol in the food we eat) may not necessarily raise blood cholesterol levels, whereas refined sugar and trans fat may. Aim for less than 300 mg/day.
USDA guidelines recommend consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day — but those numbers add up quick. Processed foods like canned soups and frozen entrees are generally high in salt as are most restaurant dishes.
Sodium is important for the body because it helps the body maintain a healthy cellular fluid balance and is critical for muscle contraction. However, it’s very easy to consume too much. One trick Benté likes to use is to “make sure the milligrams of sodium are less than or equal to the number of calories in one serving.” In other words, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, this approach will help you consume 2,000 mg (or less) of sodium.
On the nutrition facts label, Total Carbohydrates includes dietary fiber, sugar, complex carbohydrates, and non-digestible additives. If you look below Total Carbohydrates, you’ll see Dietary Fiber and Sugars are broken out (and on the new food label, Added Sugars will be as well). If you’re looking for net carbs, just subtract the fiber from the Total Carbohydrates.
What to look for:
- Dietary Fiber — Fiber is an important part of a healthy diet. “Fiber keeps us full, helps to slow the breakdown of carbs and keeps our blood sugar stable, helps us go to the bathroom, and helps bring cholesterol down,” says Turoff.
- Sugars — Currently, the number includes naturally-occurring sugars found in fruit, vegetables, and dairy as well as added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup. Until the new food labels are rolled out, look at the ingredients to get a sense of how much added sugar is in a product (if it’s one of the first few ingredients or multiple types of sugars are listed, it’s likely high in added sugar) and try to reduce your intake as much as possible. The USDA guidelines recommend consuming “less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars.” To determine the percentage of sugar in your diet, multiply the gram number by 4 and divide by your total calories consumed.
Protein helps support a healthy weight, build muscle, and stave off hunger. Every meal should have adequate protein, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every food you eat needs to contain protein. The RDA for protein is .36 grams per pound, which is approximately 54 grams of protein for a 150-pound person. If you’re exercising regularly, aim for roughly .68 grams of protein per pound (that’s 102 grams if you’re 150 pounds). However, it’s important to note that your body can only utilize about 30 grams of protein in one sitting… just another reason to eat small meals throughout the day.
The current nutrition label lists the percentage of the recommended daily value of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron within a food product. On the new label, vitamins A and C are no longer required; instead, vitamin D and potassium will be listed alongside calcium and iron, and they’ll be displayed as amounts (micrograms or milligrams) as well as percentages.
Fun Facts About the Nutrition Facts Label:
- Though it might seem like it’s been around forever, companies began printing the Nutrition Facts Label as we know it since 1994.
- The Nutrition Facts label uses Helvetica Black and Franklin Gothic Heavy fonts.
- You might not be doing quite as thorough of a read as you think. Through eye-tracking tests, a study from the University of Minnesota found most people only look at calorie count 9% of the time and a mere 1% glance at total fat, trans fat, sugar, or serving size.