How to Read Nutrition Labels

Numbers on the Nutrition Facts Label Can Help You Boost Your Health

If you’re trying to eat healthfully, the nutrition label is a must-use tool for making better food choices. Once you learn to quickly scan the Nutrition Facts label for essential information, you’ll be able to shop faster, eat better, and, if it's your goal, to lose weight with greater ease.

The Nutrition Facts panel, first introduced in 1993, changes from time to time. In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated the food labeling guidelines, with changes set to take effect by January 1, 2020, for some (larger) food manufacturers and January 1, 2021, for smaller food manufacturers.

The new design includes larger text for “Calories,” “Serving size,” and “Servings per container.” These changes will help you to find the most important information for weight loss and healthy eating.

The images throughout this guide show an example of an older version of the Nutrition Facts label on the left and the newer version on the right, so no matter which version you find on a package you will know how to read nutrition labels correctly.

Serving Size

Nutrition Facts label serving size
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Portion control and calorie counting are essential for managing your weight. So it’s important to check the serving size on the nutrition label to help you to eat correct portions and accurately count the number of calories you eat each day.

  • Use “Serving Size” to manage portions. The serving size on the package is not necessarily the amount of food you should eat, but the amount of food a typical eater consumes during a single eating occasion. You shouldn’t use this number to decide how much food to eat, but rather to determine how many calories are in a typical serving of that food. To find out how much of it to eat, use our guide to correct portions.
  • Use “Serving Size” to calculate calories correctly. If you use a calorie-tracking app you'll enter foods and food amounts into your daily food journal to count calories and manage your diet. Most of these services use “Serving size” as the default amount. Be sure to adjust the amount of your portion size if it is different than the serving size listed.

Calories

Calores in Nutrition Facts Label
U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

No matter what kind of eating plan you follow, calories matter. Of course, eating quality calories (foods that are more nutritious) will make it easier to manage your weight. But it is also essential to eat the right number of calories each day.

The calorie count on the nutrition facts panel shows how many calories are in a typical serving size. At the grocery store, it can be helpful to compare different brands and products to make the best choice for you.

Fat and Cholesterol

Fat Grams on Nutrition Facts Label
U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Eating healthy fat is good for your body and will help you to stay satisfied throughout the day. But fat is higher in calories than protein and carbohydrates, so it helps to be mindful of the amount you consume.

When you read the nutrition label, first check the total number of fat grams (red arrows) in the food. Then check the numbers below (yellow arrows) for further information. 

  • Saturated fat. While there is some emerging evidence that saturated fat may not be as bad for our bodies as previously thought, most experts still recommend that you eat less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated fat or monounsaturated fat for good health. It’s best to choose foods that have the lowest number listed here.
  • Trans fat. Experts agree that trans fats are not good for your body. Try to choose foods with as little trans fat as possible.
  • Cholesterol. Your doctor may have told you to reduce your dietary cholesterol intake. If so, this number is important for you. And although it is OK to eat eggs and other sources of dietary cholesterol, most experts still agree that keeping an eye on your intake is important.

Carbohydrates

Carbs on Nutrition Facts Label
U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Whether or not you're counting carbs, choosing better sources of carbohydrates is important for good health. The “Carbohydrates” listing on the Nutrition Facts label provides some information you need to make healthier decisions. Check these numbers to choose better carbohydrates for your diet.

  • Dietary fiber. Fiber is your friend. You’ll feel full longer if you eat foods with more dietary fiber and picking foods with a higher number here may help you have an easier time sticking to a diet. Packaged foods that contain whole grains or vegetables like spinach are often good sources of dietary fiber. Some foods also provide added fiber which may be helpful for some healthy eaters.
  • Sugars. It's smart to watch your sugar intake for weight loss and maintenance, as well as overall good health, so selecting foods with a lower number here is a good idea. The new Nutrition Facts panel makes it easier to choose healthier options by breaking out the amount of added sugar under the "Total Sugar" heading. Foods with more added sugars provide empty calories that can increase your daily intake and provide very little nutrition, so try to select foods with fewer added sugars.

Protein

protein on Nutrition Facts Label
U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Protein is an important macronutrient for maintaining muscle mass. When you select foods at the grocery store read Nutrition Facts labels to choose foods that provide protein. Lean meat products and low-fat dairy products are good examples.

But when you check the nutrition label for protein, scan the fat grams to make the number is not too high. Many protein-rich foods are also high in saturated fat and some foods in the dairy and bakery aisles contain unhealthy trans fat. 

Vitamins and Minerals

The Nutrition Facts panel also highlights various vitamins and minerals found in the product.

Sodium, or salt, is one nutrient that gets its own bolded line on the label, because too much can be harmful for your health. Most experts recommend that healthy adults limit their sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams per day. If you have a specific health condition, such as high blood pressure or kidney disease, consult your doctor or nutritionist to determine the right amount for you.

Other micronutrients, like vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron, are listed below the thick black bar on the Nutrition Facts label. Choosing foods that are more nutritious, will make it easier for you to build a strong, fit and healthy body.

Percent Daily Value

Percent daily value on nutrition facts label
U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The column on the right side of the nutrition label has numbers displayed in percentages. The numbers listed under "% Daily Value" tell you how much a particular nutrient contributes to your total daily diet if you consume 2,000 calories per day. If you consume more or less than 2,000 calories per day, these percents will not be accurate for you, but they are still useful in making healthy food choices.

Overall, the percent daily value can quickly help you gauge whether or not a food is high or low in a particular nutrient. Generally, a percent daily value of 5 percent or less means that the food is low in that nutrient and a value of 20 percent or more means that the food is high in the nutrient.

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Article Sources

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