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).
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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.

Member Comments

  • 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 - 9/5/2014 12:20:09 PM
  • 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. - 9/6/2012 10:43:27 AM
  • I'm with LogiMom2010 on this one. I do the math and it doesn't add up. Are they subtracting fiber? - 6/6/2012 3:26:22 PM
  • 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?! - 9/3/2011 11:43:09 AM
  • 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! - 8/18/2011 11:15:18 AM
  • 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. - 8/7/2011 10:12:36 AM
  • 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!!!! - 7/1/2011 4:21:00 PM
  • This was actually very helpful. Hopefully I'll put it to good use :] - 6/18/2011 8:59:18 AM
  • 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! - 4/18/2011 9:32:58 AM
  • Thank you, the 5% vs. 20% guides are extremely helpful and easy to understand. - 3/15/2011 10:54:04 AM
  • i LOVE the 5%- 20% rule: 5% or LESS of things you DON'T want, 20% or MORE of things you DO want (as in fiber, etc) THANKS!! - 2/5/2011 11:08:46 PM
  • I think that we have been tricked by food manufacturers because the way they package food. They will put what seems to be a single serving in a small bag or container when in fact it is two sometimes 4 servings. I found myself looking for a quick, but healthy snack in a convenience store the other day, and I could not find anything that was a single portion. I think that becoming aware of portions has really made a huge, positive impact on my health - 1/22/2011 9:15:32 AM
  • I can see how portion control will be the hardest and the wisest lesson to learn and master. It isn't our fault that we learned to eat such portion sizes, that is how we grew up. That is why we over eat and why it will be so hard to adjust to the correct portions.. (why can't it be the other way around)? Just kidding. I think each package should list what is inside as a whole, then I could decide if I want all 500 calories instead of feeling deprived because I can only eat half. Well..... it is what it is and I'm ready to face this. I'm sure we will eventual feel satisfied with correct portion sizes and be happy, skinny and healthier. - 1/21/2011 11:56:39 PM
  • Very Informative.... I know to cut back I tend to eat more things where the serving size is the whole contanier lol. that way i don't feel like I overate - 1/15/2011 10:39:45 PM
  • I guess that make some sense as I bet the contents aren't 100 percent the SAME from can to can. But 20% ? What gets me is sometimes in Canada (thanks to a previous PM who I love to hate we have the wonderful marvelous metric system ) its funny when the serving size is 250 ml and the can is 355. - 12/31/2010 11:50:31 PM

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