Food labels can be confusing, but you’ve got two sources of help coming your way.
The first: The FDA has recently mandated some new updates to the way companies must display nutrition information on their product labels. (Many companies have already complied, but the changes won’t be fully in effect until 2021.)
The second: You’ve also got this article, where we’ll break down those updates so you’ll know what to look for next time you’re reading those labels at the grocery store.
How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label
The FDA regulates labels on most food except for meat and poultry, which are regulated by the USDA and the FSIS. (A nutrition facts label is voluntary for purveyors of raw produce and fish.) Let’s break down how to read them.
And we’ll start… at the bottom.
Though this information is listed at the bottom of the nutrition label, it’s the best place to start. Reading this section first might save you time because, depending on what ingredients are included, you might not want to bother reading the rest of the label.
The ingredients are listed in descending order, “with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first,” according to the FDA, “followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts.”
“Ideally the shorter the list, the better,” says Keri Gans, R.D.N., C.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. This is just a general rule, of course — a superfood salad might have a long list of healthy ingredients.
But if you’re reading an ingredient list for bread and it has 30 unrecognizable ingredients, odds are you might want to consider putting it back on the shelf in favor of a more wholesome option.
“Just because you don’t recognize an ingredient doesn’t mean it should be avoided,” though, Gans cautions. For instance, ascorbic acid is just vitamin C.
And now, to the top of the label — from now on, we’ll work our way down.
All nutrition information on the label is calculated per serving size, not per package, which makes perfect sense for a box of cereal, but gets a bit more complicated for, say, a can of soda.
One majorly helpful labeling change is that many companies are now being forced to upgrade their listed serving sizes to reflect actual serving sizes, and those numbers must be displayed in a larger font than before.
Previously, it could be easy to miss that the calorie and sugar content on a 20-ounce bottle of soda, for example, wasn’t necessarily for the whole bottle — the manufacturer could sneakily whisper in a tiny font that you were holding one and a half servings or more, though most people would realistically drink the whole bottle. Now, they have to use the size of that bottle for their calculations.
To repeat: all nutrition information on labels is calculated per serving, not per container. And that’s not necessarily a recommended serving size, just the size that’s used as the basis for calculation.
Right under the serving size, the biggest piece of info (literally, the biggest font) is the number of calories per serving. If you’re monitoring calories, you just want to remember, again, to check the serving size (and number of servings per container) to make sure you really know what you’re in for.
“Total fat tells us how many grams of any kind of fat are in this food — both the good and the bad,” says Alix Turoff, R.D. and nutritionist at Top Balance Nutrition in New York City.
Paige Benté, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., recommends getting roughly 30% of your daily calories from fat.
• 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.
• Trans fat
This number should be at zero, says Gans, since trans fat can lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol. The FDA has banned artificial trans fats in foods, though you may still see some on shelves until January 1, 2020.
Focus on those healthy fats. The best way to know if you are getting healthy fats is to look at the total grams of fat, and compare that to that number of grams of saturated fat and trans fats. As long as most of the fat is not coming from saturated fat (and none of it from trans fats), then you know you are making a good choice.
Foods high in healthy fats include avocados, unsalted nuts, seeds, and fish.
Since the nutrition label was originally designed, research on dietary cholesterol (the cholesterol in the food we eat) has evolved — back in 2010, the USDA’s previous recommendation was to aim for less than 300 mg per day, but current guidelines do not provide an updated number.
The recommendation instead is that you should generally try to minimize your intake as much as possible while focusing on whole, healthy foods.
If you’re worried about your cholesterol intake, talk to your doctor or dietitian.
USDA guidelines recommend consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day — but those numbers add up quickly. Processed foods like canned soups and frozen entrees are generally high in salt, as are many restaurant dishes.
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 a 500-calorie meal, keep the sodium under 500 mg, so at the end of the day, if you consume 2,000 calories total, this approach will help you consume no more than 2,000 mg of sodium.
“Total carbohydrates” includes sugars, sugar alcohols, starches, and dietary fiber. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests 300 g of carbs per day, assuming a 2,000-calorie diet.
If you’re looking for net carbs, just subtract the dietary fiber from the total carbohydrates.
• 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.
Natural sources of fiber include fruits, beans, peas, and brown rice. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that at least half of your total intake of grains come from whole grains, not refined sources like white bread.
It is recommended that we get at least 25 grams of fiber per day, This number may vary based on sex and age, but aiming for a minimum of 25 grams is a great place to start.
• Total Sugars
One of the most helpful FDA-mandated label changes involves specifically calling out added sugar, not just the more general “sugars” previously required — so you can easily discern what’s been added by the manufacturer versus the naturally occurring sugar you’ll find in foods like dairy and fruit. If the “added sugars” below is zero, then the amount of sugar listed here is naturally occurring in the food.
• Added Sugars
Typically, if you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake, you want to focus on reducing those added sugars, not the naturally occurring kind.
As a general guideline, the USDA guidelines recommend consuming “less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars.” Once you start reading labels you will see that these added sugars add up quickly!
Protein helps support a healthy weight, build muscle, and stave off hunger. The USDA recommends incorporating high-protein foods like seafood, lean meats, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds as part of your diet. Trying to figure out exactly how much protein you need in a day? There are a lot of factors, including age, sex and activity level — here’s more info.
On the new label, vitamins A and C are no longer required to be listed because most Americans are no longer deficient, according to the FDA — instead, vitamin D and potassium will be listed alongside calcium and iron. Companies may choose to include any number of other vitamins voluntarily.
The Bottom Line
Food manufacturers are very good at making a product look healthy by using words like “natural” and “organic” on the front. But you have to turn the product over to get the real story.
“Typically you can’t know much about a product by simply looking at the package itself,” says Gans. “However, when you read the nutrition label, important information is revealed.”