Nutrition Articles

How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label

Solving the Ninth Mystery of the World

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What do you look for when you’re checking out the nutrition facts on that macaroni and cheese box? Whether you’re one to zoom in on total calories or total carbs, you might be missing the real picture. Nutrition facts should be a part of your decision in what to eat or even what to buy. But interpreting the facts requires a bit of know-how, so make sure you aren’t misleading yourself.

Understand the Power of "Serving Size"
The most important rule is to know your serving size and the number of servings in the package or can. If the label says "one cup" per serving size and "two servings per container," that means there are two cups in the whole package. If you know you’ll eat the whole package by yourself, you are going to consume two cups (1 cup x 2 servings/container = 2 cups). That means that you must double all the nutrition facts measurements to know your total intake of each nutrient – the good and the bad. Using the mac and cheese example, eating the whole package means you will have consumed 500 calories, 220 of which are from fat. You will have consumed 24 grams of fat, of which 6 grams are saturated fat.

The only time you can avoid doing the math is when you eat the exact serving size that is listed. Always compare the listed serving size to how much food you think you’ll eat and compute calories from there. 
 

Crack the Code in "Percent Daily Value"
Confused by what all those percents really mean? The percents refer to "percent daily value" and they’re a bit trickier to interpret. The FDA bases these percents on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. Looking at cholesterol on the mac and cheese label, the FDA says that you are getting 30 milligrams per serving, or 10% of the recommended amount of cholesterol for a person eating about 2,000 calories per day. (Remember, you’re getting 20% if you eat the whole package.) So how do you know if 10% is a good or bad number?



For ease of explanation, let’s break this down into a guide that will help us look at a percent and immediately know if it is high or low for one food source. The magic numbers are 5 and 20%. Anything listed in the percent daily value column that is 5% or less is a low number for nutrients. This is a good range for things that you want to limit (fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium), but too low for things you want to eat plenty of (fiber, calcium, and vitamins). Anything listed as 20% or more is high. This is a bad range for things that you want to limit (fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium), but a good range for things you want to eat plenty of (fiber, calcium, and vitamins).

Look at "Total Fat" on the mac and cheese label. The 18% daily value is close to the high point, but if you ate the whole package, you actually ate 36% of the recommended daily amount of fat (well above our benchmark of 20%). That amount, coming from just one source of food in a day, contributes a lot of fat to your daily diet. It would leave you 64% (100% - 36% = 64%) of your fat allowance for all other meals, drinks, and snacks you would eat that day.

If your daily goal is well below 2,000 calories for your weight loss plan, then use the percents as a frame of reference (realizing you need to be below the percents shown, per serving). Or, you may find it simpler to keep track of grams and milligrams instead of the percents. The Nutrition Facts footnote gives a scale in grams and milligrams for recommended amounts of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and fiber based on 2,000- and 2,500- calorie diets. (This footnote does not appear on small packages where there is no room for it.)

The percent daily value also offers a great way to watch your diet without completely giving up your favorite foods. For example, if you ate one serving of macaroni and cheese but ensured you had a low fat intake for all other foods you ate that day, you made a successful trade off. When you really want a food that is high in fat, always balance it with healthy low-fat foods in the same day.

Quick Interpretation Guide
  • Start at the top with Serving Size and Servings Per Container. Adjust all measurements below this point according to the serving size you will eat.
  • Look at the number of calories per serving (including how many calories are from fat).
  • Limit these nutrients: total fat (including saturated and trans fat), cholesterol, and sodium.
  • Get plenty of these nutrients: fiber, vitamins, calcium, and iron
  • Use the % Daily Value to determine what is a high or low number for your daily diet. 5% or less is low; 20% or more is high.
Don’t just use the nutrition facts to track the nutrients you want to cut back on. Use it to track the nutrients you want to increase (like fiber, calcium and vitamins)! Whether you’re a stickler for tracking every fat gram and calorie per day or someone who just wants a rough estimate of her daily nutrient intake, the nutrition facts label is a handy tool. Learn how to use it for foods you eat frequently and anything new that you are tempted to incorporate into your regular meal plan.

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Member Comments

  • Lots of new and different since this article was written -- still good advice to read labels; but be careful with what you read -- serving sizes are not very realistic. 8-)
  • Nice to know facts.
  • Great informative articel--I just wonder why there isn't a "type of sugar" breakdown listing like there is "type of fats"
  • Good and usable article. Thank you.
  • Great article has taught me how to read labels. Really helpful
  • Great article. Lots of valuable information provided!
  • BILLTHOMSON
    I love cracking the code
  • The 5 and 20% guidelines are a great little check, especially when you are in the grocery store and trying to glance in a hurry. Thanks for sharing this tip.
  • I have embraced the Keto eating life style. So i eat less than 20 grams of carbs, at least 78 grams of protien and up to 96 grams of fat daily. I rarly buy or eat prosessed foods. Reading lables is a must for me to stay on track.
  • Thank-you for the article I wanted to know what was considered high sodium and carbs in a food and the 5%-20% general rule is very helpful.
  • The 5 & 20% is a great rule of thumb. Thank you.
  • Great article, I think reading the ingredients is also important, that is where you see things like added sugars, or sodium which will tell you to check another brand and compare.
    Also this points out the reason I love the SparkPeople Nutrition tracker, it will track so much more than just calories and fat..so when Doc tells you to watch sodium, or carbs you're covered!
  • MAS1216
    I have learned that in order to use canned vegetables , I have to rinse them thoroughly in cold water before heating. Water retention is a big problem for me and this helps with salt reduction. There is so much sodium in foods!
  • THREETABLES
    Our bodies are so complex and without all the variables added and computed... focusing on EXACT numbers is almost redundant when one thinks about it. Simplifying the percentage values on the label by using the 5% and 20% as you have stated is wholeheartedly welcomed and appreciated. Thank you!
  • Great article and very informative and a great reminder to always read the labels. I have been doing this for a few years now but slacked off, time to get back on track.

About The Author

Laura Bofinger Laura Bofinger
As a freelance writer, Laura uncovers some kind of inspiration every day when she writes about health and fitness.