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

  • 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.
  • Answer: the carbohydrates come from Erythritol - a sugar alcohol that passes through your system mostly undigested. since the body doesn't break it down, you don't get energy/calories from it.

    Sandra
  • Very helpful. I always look at the sodium - have always had a problem with water retention. It is hard to limit sodium intake because they put salt and sugar in everything!! So, mostly I just cook from scratch and shop mostly the produce and meat sections. Stay away from most canned products.
  • I'm with LogiMom2010 on this one. I do the math and it doesn't add up. Are they subtracting fiber?
  • I know that the FDA allows companies to round the numbers up. What I dont understand is how if you plug in the numbers on some products and do the math (Fatx9)+(Carbx4)+
    (Proteinx4)=C
    alories how it can be so far off the mark some times. Or how Truvia is SUPPOSED to be ZERO calories, but it had 3 Carbs. 3x4=12 Calories .. so how is this a Zero Calorie product?!
  • Thank you for the information the lables are confusing, the fact that I have to do math every time I buy something from the store is frustrating and hard for me to keep my diet in line some times I just want to buy my food without the pop quiz. lol This of course leads to my only looking at cal per serving and some bad choices.

    I find the easiest way is fresh food, no cans or packages back to the basic that is my stratagy and I hope it will work!
  • ELLDOCKE
    I almost skipped this article because I thought I already knew! Thanks for the pointers on good/bad percentages and balancing foods throughout the day. Very helpful.
  • Wow that's pretty interesting! It shocks me reading this because now looking back, as a kid I ate SO MUCH bad foods!! I wish I had known this years ago! Not that any child should be analyzing the nutrition labels or anything, but I think it would have been a great educational tool for parents to at least explain to their children about good vs. bad/ healthy vs. non-healthy food ranges. Or at least for the parents to be educated and know whats foods their family is eating. Thank you SO MUCH for this article!!!!
  • This was actually very helpful. Hopefully I'll put it to good use :]
  • Wow! I have read some many ways to read a label and they all seemed to confuse me, lol. So thank you for this simple rule that I am excited to use on my next trip to the grocery store!

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.

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