For something people interact with on a near-daily basis, nutrition labels are surprisingly confounding. Reading them is one of those things they rarely teach in school, although they most definitely should (along with how to file taxes!).
To add to the confusion, many food labels are littered with misleading terminology, wonky serving sizes, and unfamiliar names for common ingredients. That makes it doubly hard for anyone who's trying to lead a healthy, active life to make informed dietary choices.
Health-conscious folks who want to read these labels easily and effectively should keep reading to learn the basics of how to actually understand nutrition facts.
That, and a few bonus tips on avoiding marketing mischief.
BREAKING DOWN THE BASICS
First up, there's that handy little table everyone is familiar with, labeled as "Nutrition Facts." The very top is where the serving information is located, followed by calories, a nutrient breakdown, and a quick guide to the Daily Value percentage.
Readers will also find product dates, a list of ingredients, and certain claims elsewhere on the label.
The first thing people see is the serving information, which details the number of servings in the entire package and the size of each serving. These sizes are standardized so the reader can compare related foods, like two boxes of rice or several soup flavors.
They're presented in recognizable units like cups or entire pieces, followed by metric measurements. The serving size is supposed to represent the amount people commonly eat — it is not a suggestion on how much to eat.
It's easy to forget that the nutrient breakdown below this part is what's included in one serving size. The number of calories, sugar, sodium, and everything else doubles for every two servings eaten, triples for every three, and so on.
In instances where a product with several servings might realistically be eaten in one sitting, labels will have a dual column. This just means the label shows the amounts of nutrients and calories on a "per serving" and "per package" basis to make things easier.
Hot health tip: Some manufacturers intentionally make their serving sizes small to make it seem like their product has fewer calories or carbs. A good rule of thumb is to quickly multiply the amount of any given nutrient by the number of servings in the package.
So, for a package consisting of four servings, someone watching their sugar intake would multiply the amount of sugar listed by four. Simple, right?
One of the most important tidbits, the calorie amount, is listed next. Calories help people understand how much energy they'll get from a single serving.
The FDA suggests the average adult should consume 2,000 calories per day. That's based on a general estimation of what most people need but can vary depending on activity level, age, gender, and more.
Hot health tip: Resources like the USDA's MyPlate Plan can help people calculate how many calories they actually need.
NUTRIENTS AND NECESSITIES
This is where some get lost, and understandably so. Some of the nutrients listed in this section are ones the FDA suggests folks gravitate toward, while others should be limited.
The good guys are:
- Vitamin D
- Dietary fiber
And the bad guys:
- Added sugars
- Saturated fat
- Trans fat
There's also an amount listed for total carbohydrates and cholesterol.
The FDA recently updated the Nutrition Facts label in 2020 to be more detailed and accurate. This updated info includes:
Added Sugars: This explains how much sugar is added during processing. That makes it easier to understand how much sugar foods contain naturally versus what the manufacturer has poured in.
New Nutrient Additions: Nutrition labels used to provide the amount of vitamins A and C, but no longer. They've been supplanted by vitamin D and potassium, two nutrients that Americans don't typically get enough of.
THE PERFECT PERCENTAGE
All these nutrients are joined by a measurement to the right labeled "% Daily Value." Percent Daily Value is a standardized reference amount the FDA thinks adults should eat in a given day. Remember — this is based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Say the "Total Carbohydrate" row has the number 15% next to it. That means one serving provides 15% of the total carbohydrates someone eating 2,000 calories a day should consume for that entire day.
Hot health tip: Those eating fewer or more calories than 2,000 will need to either stay under or go over 100% DV, so adjust accordingly.
If a food or beverage has less than 5% of the DV per serving, it's considered low in that nutrient. Above 20% is high. This can be positive or negative, depending on whether you need that nutrient or not.
When in doubt, aim high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and stay low in fat, sodium, and cholesterol.
Then there are the ingredients lists, health claims, and product dates.
Product dates are printed in phrases like sell by, best if used by, and use by.
- Sell by is the latest date the manufacturer thinks a store should carry a product — avoid things that are past this date.
- Use by/Best if used by indicates the period of best quality — the item hasn't gone bad past that date, but it might taste stale.
Ingredients lists are relatively straightforward, but many people don't know these are listed in order by weight. That means the first ingredient is the one most used.
The first three ingredients tend to make up the bulk of an item. It's probably not a healthy product if any of these are a type of sugar or refined grain. And when an ingredients list is extremely long, the food inside is likely heavily processed.
Speaking of sugar, another thing people don't realize is that there are about a million names for it. Okay, maybe not a million, but a lot. Like:
- Agave nectar
- Malt syrup
- Cane juice crystals
- Corn sweetener
- Fruit juice concentrate
Finally, there are terminology and health claims to tackle. These can range from "calorie-free" — which means there are less than five calories per serving — to "natural," an extremely generic term that doesn't really mean anything.
To be 100% sure what you're getting, familiarize yourself with ingredient names and scan the ingredients list and nutrients to truly understand what's inside.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Knowing how to read a nutrition label is one of the best things a health-conscious consumer can do to stay fit. That and getting plenty of exercise. Now, go enjoy something delicious and nutritious.