Decoding Nutrition Facts

How to decipher those mandatory food labels.

The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act made the Nutrition Facts food label mandatory for most packaged foods. Ironically, the foods that aren’t required to have nutrition facts—like raw fruits and vegetables—are the ones you probably want to be eating most often. However, sometimes packaged foods are unavoidable. When faced with an array of choices, it helps if you know how to decipher the nutrition facts and make the healthiest choice.

Below is a list of each category of the food label, along with our guide for translating the information.

Serving size and servings per container: All of the information on the label is based on a single serving. Often a single serving is much smaller than you think it is. Sometimes it’s helpful to multiply the serving size and the servings per container so that you can understand the amount of calories and fat in the entire package, rather than just a single serving.

Calories: If you’re watching your weight, this is an important number. A calorie is a measure of how much energy a food provides. Eating too many calories will result in excess weight. Many people mistakenly assume that the calorie count on a food label is for the entire package, but remember that it represents the number of calories in a single serving. If you consume more than one serving, do the math!

Calories from fat: This refers to the number of calories in a single serving that come from fat. While fat is an important component of the diet, it should only comprise about 20 to 35 percent of our total calorie intake. If a food contains 200 calories and 100 calories from fat, that reflects a high fat content (50 percent).

Total fat: This reports the number of fat grams in one serving. We need fat in our diet, just not too much. Some fats are better than others, and many labels now break this information down into different types of fat:

  • Saturated fat: Saturated fat is found in dairy products and meat and has been shown to raise the risk of heart disease.
  • Trans fat: Trans fats are not necessary in the diet and have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease. There is no safe amount of trans fats, so it’s best to choose products that have zero trans fats. The term partially hydrogenated oil is usually a clue that a product contains trans fats.

Cholesterol: Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found in the bloodstream and in all of the cells of the body. It is essential to human life; however, too much cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Cholesterol is only found in animal products. The American Heart Association recommends consuming between 200-300 mg of cholesterol per day. The consumption of saturated fat and trans fat can impact your cholesterol level, so it’s important to note the fat content as well as the cholesterol count.

Sodium: Sodium is an essential nutrient, but we only need a little bit of it in our diet. Aim for 2,400 mg or less per day. (Individuals with high blood pressure are advised to consume less than 1,500 mg per day.) Based on these numbers, you’ll want to look for foods that have no more than 200 to 500 mg of sodium per serving.

Total carbohydrate: Carbohydrates are macronutrients that comprise a large part of the diet and include sugars, starches, and fibers. Carbohydrates have received a bad rap, but they are a necessary part of the diet—as long as we choose the right type and amount. Individuals with diabetes must regulate their intake of carbohydrates in order to control blood sugar levels. Food labels list two components of carbohydrates that are important:

  • Dietary fiber: The American Dietetic Association recommends 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day. Foods that contain five or more grams per serving are considered high fiber.
  • Sugars: Added sugars are high in calories and low in value. Look for foods that have a low sugar count.

Percent Daily Value: The Percent Daily Value refers to how much of a nutrient you should consume each day; however, there is one major caveat—the Percent Daily Value is calculated off of a 2,000-calorie daily diet, which is more than most women need. In other words, if a product offers 15 percent daily value of carbohydrates for a 2,000-calorie diet, but you’re eating 1,500 calories, the product is giving you more than 15 percent of your carbohydrate intake.

The Percent Daily Value is useful for determining whether a food is high or low in a nutrient—just be careful if it looks like it’s high in fat because with the calorie-calculation discrepancy, it’s even higher than you think. The Percent Daily Value can be helpful for making comparisons between products.

All food labels contain the footnote: “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet.” If there is room on the label, the footnote includes a second sentence: “Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.”

Protein: Protein should comprise about 15 to 25 percent of our diet. Some experts recommend eating .5 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you’ll need 75 grams of protein each day. Because our protein needs vary, food labels report protein in grams, but do not apply a Percent Daily Value to protein.

The dividing line: You may have noticed that thick dividing line on the food label beneath the protein count, but do you know why it is there? The nutrients listed above the line are those that Westerners generally eat enough of—or even too much of. The nutrients listed below the line are ones we typically don’t get enough of. (One exception: most people don’t get enough dietary fiber, which is listed above the line.)

Vitamins and minerals: Below the dividing line, the food label lists the Percent Daily Value for vitamin A, calcium, vitamin C, and iron. (This is the minimum, but same labels include other nutrients.)

Ingredients: Below the Nutrition Facts is a list of ingredients, in order from most to least. This may be the most important part of the label because it provides an opportunity to see what is in the product and to spot any potential allergens. Look for a list of ingredients that is short; the longer the list, the more processed a food is. If sugar is one of the first three ingredients, pay attention—there may not be much nutrient value in the product.

Allergy information: There are eight common food allergens that must be flagged on a food label: milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts. This information must be stated:

  • In the ingredient list
  • In parentheses after the ingredient: casein (milk)
  • Below the ingredient list: Contains wheat, eggs (Note: sometimes products will say something like “This product was manufactured and processed in a facility that also processes tree nuts.”)

Learning to Love the Labels

Food labels look more intimidating than they really are. Once you learn how to decipher the information, food labels can be a useful tool for guiding your dietary choices. Just remember, an apple doesn’t need a food label and there’s a good reason for that—it comes straight from Mother Nature. As often as possible, choose whole foods that don’t require labeling; when you must buy packaged, be sure to take a moment to glance at the label.