Womens Health

Reading Food Nutrition Facts Labels: A Consumer Guide

Over the past several decades, awareness about the dangers of eating unhealthy foods has grown substantially. As a result, the government has taken extensive measures to ensure consumers are properly informed about the foods they eat; namely, by requiring manufacturers to post nutrition facts labels on all packaged foods. The problem is that these labels have become so detailed many find them difficult to decipher.

That is why we have composed this guide to help you understand what nutrition facts separate healthy foods from unhealthy ones.

What's on the Label?

Nutrition facts labels generally contain the following information:

    1. Serving Size
    2. Calories
    3. Total Fat
      • Saturated Fat
      • Trans Fat
    4. Cholesterol
    5. Sodium
    6. Total Carbohydrate
      • Dietary Fiber
      • Sugars
    7. Proteins
    8. Vitamins
  • Ingredients
  • Percentage of Daily Value Intake

Deconstructing the Label: Food Nutrition Explained

So what does it all mean? While all of the information provided on food nutrition labels is valuable to ensuring you eat a healthy, balanced diet, it's only really useful if you know what it means.

  1. Serving Size: Serving size is arguably the most important nutrition fact your food label contains. In fact, obesity has been linked in large part to the North American diet, which has notoriously huge serving sizes. That's why it is so important to be aware of the serving size and what you are actually eating. Some serving sizes are purposely less than the amount most people would eat at one time (for example packaged nuts often have serving sizes smaller than the package itself). But if you're eating double the serving size, you should know you are also consuming double the calories, fat, sugars and all the other not-so-good stuff. Serving sizes are measured in units, such as cups or pieces, as well as by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams.
  2. Calories: Calories and serving size are two very important components of a nutrition label, and should be taken into consideration together. That means that the amount of calories per serving is actually a very good indicator of how high or low in calories the food you're eating really is. In general, food with 40 calories/serving is considered to be low in calories; food that has 100 calories/serving is considered moderate; and food with 400 or more calories per serving is considered to be high in calories.
  3. Total Fat: This is also a very important thing to be aware of, as eating a diet that is too high in fats is associated with a host of health problems, including heart disease and high cholesterol. However, not all fats are created equal, which is why the government recently took measures requiring food manufacturers to not only post how much fat their product contains, but also how much trans fats it contains, as these fats have been strongly linked to heart disease and contain no health benefits.
    • Saturated Fats: These fats are identified by their ability to maintain a solid form at room temperature. They are typically found in animal products and foods containing hydrogenated oils, including margarine and shortening. It is recommended that people limit as much as possible their intake of saturated fats.
    • Trans Fats: These fats also stay solid at room temperature, but are exclusively found in manufactured food products such as pre-cooked meals, packaged meats, and fried foods. It is recommended people do not consume any trans fat, or limit their intake of these types of fats as much as possible.
  4. Cholesterol/Sodium: Like saturated and trans fats, it is advised that people limit their intake of cholesterol and sodium, as both are associated with health risks, including heart disease, obesity and some cancers. Look for foods that have 140mg of sodium or less per serving and less than 20 mg of cholesterol per serving.
  5. Protein: Many people are confused as to how much protein is good to eat, since fad diets such as the Atkins diet or South Beach Diet have emphasized the benefits of eating protein over carbohydrates. However, you should keep in mind that most people get enough protein in their normal diets from foods like eggs, meats, beans, nuts and soy products, without having to add any more. That being said, the recommended amount of protein per day is only about 9 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight. So if you weigh 140 pounds, you need about 63 grams of protein each day (Note: 6 ounces of cooked chicken has about 43 grams of protein).
  6. Total Carbohydrates: If you are on a low-carb diet then you will want to watch your intake of carbohydrates. Otherwise, carbs should make up a significant amount of your daily caloric intake. Of course, just as with fat intake, there are "good carbs" and "bad carbs", hence why the label is broken down further into dietary fiber (good carbs) and sugars (bad carbs). Foods that are high in fiber such as whole grain breads, cereals, and pastas are great for your overall health, while those that are high in sugar - especially refined sugar - are not.
  7. Vitamins: Because so many people are lacking essential vitamins in their diet, it's important to be aware how many vitamins are included in your diet. A food is a good source of vitamins if it contains more than 20% daily value (DV). Anything lower than 10% is not considered to be a significant source of that vitamin. Calcium is an important nutrient that is especially vital for children and teenagers - who actually require more than the recommended DV. So be sure to read those labels!


This is where things get especially tricky. That is because most ingredients include a long list of things most of us are not familiar with (disodium phosphate, anyone?). However, that is why understanding these ingredients is so important, since many times it is precisely those "hidden ingredients" that can be the worst for your health. For example, you should stay away from any foods that have the following listed in their first five ingredients:

  • corn sweetener
  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • glucose
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • lactose
  • maltose
  • sucrose

These are just a few of the many terms that essentially mean "added sugars". Foods that have these listed in their first five ingredients are guaranteed to be high in sugar, and, hence, high in calories and "bad carbs" as well.

In addition, if you're looking for high fiber foods, you should be watching for foods containing whole grains. However, there are a lot of seemingly synonymous words for whole grains that, in fact, are not. For example, the following words mean the product is made with refined, not whole, grains:

  • multi-grain
  • 100% wheat (surprising, isn't it?)
  • seven-grain
  • stone-ground
  • bran
  • cracked wheat

Finally, be especially careful of any foods that list 'partially hydrogenated vegetable oil' on their ingredient list - especially if this appears in the first few. Any hydrogenated oil is source of trans fat, which as you already know, carries no health benefits but lots of health risks.

Percent Daily Value (%DV)

The percent of daily value (%DV) is listed on the right side of nutrition facts labels and is designed to show consumers how this product fits into their daily recommended food intake. The %DVs is based on the recommendations for a 2,000 calorie daily diet - not 2,500 as most people assume. If you're trying to choose healthy foods, look for ones with vitamin intakes of greater than 20%. And keep in mind that while the intake is designed to make you more conscious of getting 100% of these recommended values, it is in fact the least amount that you should eating of 'good things' like dietary fiber, vitamin A, C, calcium and iron.

On the other hand, you should be looking for foods that have 5% or less %DV of fats, especially saturated fats - trans fat does not have a %DV because it is not recommended that it account for any amount of your daily food intake. You should also look for foods that have a low %DV of sodium and cholesterol.

Finally, you should also keep in mind that when you increase the serving size, you are also increasing the %DV.

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