How to Read the Nutrition Facts Label

How to Read the Nutrition Facts Label

Since the 1970’s all food packages and prepared foods are required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to have a nutrition facts label help us, the consumers, make informed decisions about what we are eating. According to the White House Conference that took place in 1970 (the first public acknowledgment of the importance of food labeling in the US), “Every manufacturer should be encouraged to provide truthful nutritional information about his products to enable consumers to follow recommended dietary regimens.”

Since then, the food label has gone through multiple revisions to make it easier to understand. Nonetheless, the FDA recognizes that particular skills are still required in order to really understand the information that the food labels are trying to communicate. Find out how you can be smarter about understanding what you are putting into your body, as well as tips to avoid getting tricked by food companies and potentially misleading tactics.

How to read a nutrition label

Nutrition labels contain so much information it can often be hard to know what to look for. Practice taking the following four easy steps when picking up a packaged food next time you go to the supermarket in order to make better decisions about what is going into your body.  

1. Check the serving size.

Each package should tell you what the serving size is, and how many servings there are in one package. All of the information that follows will be based on one serving size. It is also important to compare the serving size to how much you normally eat of the food in order to estimate how much of each of the nutrients you are actually consuming.

2. Look at the calories

Calories tell you how much energy each serving has.  Remember that calories aren’t “bad” for you. You need energy from food for your body to carry out basic functions. The problems emerge when you eat more calories than you actually need, which can lead to weight gain, or when you eat foods with lots of calories, but not many other necessary nutrients.

3. Look at the %DV

%DV means “percent of the daily value” of a particular nutrient. The range is from 0% (none) to 100% (all that you need in a day) These numbers are based on a 2000-calorie diet. It is important to note that how many calories each person needs differs depending on weight, age, sex and physical activity, so it may be possible that you need less or more than the 2000 calories the %DV calculations are based on.

Nonetheless, it is a good baseline to follow if you want to get a general idea of how much of each nutrient the food contributes to your overall diet. As a general rule:

  • 5% DV is a little
  • 15% DV or more is a lot

In general, you want to try to eat more fiber, vitamins, iron, and calcium, as these can be scarce in our diets.

Try to eat less saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fat and try to avoid trans fat.

4. Look at the ingredients

Look to the ingredients if you have any food sensitivities or if you want to try and avoid eating and particular ingredient or over-processed foods.

Some additional tips for reading nutrition labels

Additionally, some companies know that customers are starting to get smarter about reading labels, and will even try to disguise ingredients or calories information with misleading names and portion sizes.  

  • In general, choose foods that have ingredients you can understand. Long lists of ingredients that include foods and additives you can’t pronounce (much less understand) usually mean they are over-processed. Studies show over-processed foods can lead to a range of health issues, so they are best to avoid.
  • Ingredients can be misleading. If there is an ingredient you are working to avoid, like hydrogenated vegetable oil or MSG, look up alternative names for these ingredients. Companies know that consumers are getting smarter, and some want to trick them into buying their food anyway rather than altering a recipe.
  • There are many things not on the nutrition label. There are thousands of nutrients that nutrition labels could name, but they would cease to be so easy to understand. Keep in mind that there are many nutrients important for your health that are excluded by the nutrition label. You can look up specific nutrition information about each food on the USDA website.