How to Read Nutrition Labels

Scan food labels faster to get the essential facts

If you’re trying to eat healthfully, the nutrition label becomes 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.

As you read through this guide keep in mind that the Nutrition Facts label changes from time to time. The label you see in the store today will be changing in the coming years to reflect the newest health guidelines established by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The new design includes larger text for “Calories,” “Serving size,” and “Servings per container.”  These changes will help you to find the most important weight loss information.

So when will you see the changes? You may see some already. Some food manufacturers are already incorporating updates in their product labels. But the most current FDA rules suggest that changes should be in place by dates ranging from January 1, 2020, to January 1, 2021, depending on the size of the food company.

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

Serving Size

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

Portion control is essential for managing your weight. Counting calories accurately matters, too. So it’s essential that you check the serving size on the food label because it will help you to eat correct portions and to count the right number of calories you eat each day.

  • Use “Serving Size” to manage portions. The serving size on the package is not the amount of food you should eat. It is the amount of food that a typical eater consumes during a single eating occasion. So you shouldn’t use this number to decide how much food to eat. Instead, use this number only to determine how many calories are in a typical serving of that food. To find out how much of it to eat, use my guide to correct portions.
  • Use “Serving Size” to calculate calories correctly. If you use a calorie tracking app you will 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 that you change the amount if your portion size is different than the serving size listed.


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) you’ll have an easier time managing your weight. But it is also essential to eat the right number of calories each day.

When you read nutrition labels at the grocery store, check the calorie count to see how many you'll gain when you eat the portion of that food that you usually consume. Then compare different brands and products to see if you can make the best choice.

Fat and Cholesterol

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

Eating some healthy fat is good for your body and will help you to stay satisfied throughout the day. But fat is full of calories so you need to choose your fat carefully and eat it sparingly.

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


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 food label can help you make better decisions about which food to choose. But you’ll need to look underneath the “Carbohydrates” listing to get the information you need.

Check these numbers to choose good carbohydrates for your diet.

  • Dietary fiber. Fiber is your friend. You’ll feel full longer if you choose foods with more dietary fiber. If you can choose foods with a higher number in this area, you may have an easier time sticking to your 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 if you want to reach and maintain a healthy weight, so you’ll want to check this number and choose foods that contain less sugar. But not all sugar-rich foods are the same. The new Nutrition Facts label makes it easier to choose healthier foods with sugar. On the new label, you will see a listing for “Total Sugars” and “Added Sugars.” Try to choose foods with the fewest “Added Sugars.” Foods with more added sugars provide empty calories that can increase your daily calorie intake and provide very little nutrition.  


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

Protein is another important macronutrient for maintaining muscle mass. When you select foods at the grocery store read food labels and try to choose some 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 aisle contain unhealthy trans fat. 

Vitamins and Minerals

When it comes to sodium, most experts recommend that healthy eaters keep their sodium intake under 2,300 milligrams per day. If you're conscious about your intake for managing a specific health condition refer to the appropriate recommendations.

The numbers listed under the thick black bar give you important information about the healthy micronutrients in your food, too. If you choose foods that are more nutritious, it will be easier for you to build a strong, fit body. In a perfect world, dieters would choose foods that are low in calories and high in nutrition.

Percent Daily Value

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

You may overlook the numbers listed under "percent daily value." But the numbers tell you how much a particular nutrient contributes to your total daily diet if you consume 2,000 calories per day. If you consume fewer than 2000 calories per day, then the percents listed in this column will not be accurate for you.

Overall, the percent daily value can quickly help you gage 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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