How to decode food labels to boost your nutrition
The updated Nutrition Facts label reflects the latest nutrition research scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases, such as obesity and heart disease. But what do we do with these facts?
Interpreting the label, which tells you what’s in the food and drinks you consume, can help you make healthier food choices.
Understanding the basics of a food nutrition label
% Daily Value (%DV)
The percent Daily Value shows how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a total diet based on 2,000 calories a day. Since this isn’t a one-size-fits-all calculation, start by looking at the actual amount of the nutrients listed. Aim to choose foods that contain more of the nutrients you want and less of those you may want to limit.
For example, vitamin D and potassium are now required on the label because Americans don’t always get the recommended amounts. Diets higher in vitamin D and potassium can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and high blood pressure.
The serving size can be found at the top of the label, shown as a common household measurement appropriate to the food (i.e., a cup, tablespoon, piece, slice or jar), followed by the metric amount in grams (g).
The serving size reflects the amount people typically eat versus the actual amount consumed. If you eat more or less than the serving size listed, you will need to do some simple math on the rest of the Nutrition Facts.
For example, if the serving size is half a cup and you are consuming one cup of the item, you’ll need to double the information shown on the label.
Calories are the measurement of energy in foods. They come from carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Monitor calories and calculate how much the food or beverage will contribute to your daily caloric intake.
Excessive caloric (energy) intake without energy output to balance it out will result in weight gain (and vice versa). Look for items with lower calories from fat.
Nutrients to watch
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans serves up the most current advice on what to eat and drink to meet your daily nutrient needs, promote health and prevent disease. The guidelines are based on age, sex, height, weight and activity level and can be a helpful tool when breaking down a food label.
The total fat value includes monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans-fat. Dietary fat has more than twice the calories per gram as either carbohydrate or protein, so calories from fat can add up quickly.
Aim for around 25% to 35% of calories from fat. For a quick ballpark calculation, try limiting total fat to no more than 3 grams per 100 calories.
Saturated fat contributes to LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. It comes primarily from animal products, so look for leaner meats and low-fat dairy products.
A reasonable goal: limit saturated fat to no more than 10% of your diet (or about 1 gram per 100 calories).
Trans fat is a form of dietary fat considered the unhealthiest because they lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol.
There are two broad sources of trans fats found in foods:
- Naturally formed trans fats, like milk and red meat, produced by animals
- Artificial trans fats usually found in processed foods, such as baked goods, fried foods and shortening
Important note: Most uses of partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of artificial trans fat in the US food supply, have been phased out as of 2020. When the Nutrition Facts label lists a food containing “0 g” of trans fat but includes “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list, the food contains some trans fat but less than 0.5 grams per serving. So, if you eat more than one serving, you could consume too much trans fat.
Each food label should include milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per serving.
While the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans removed the recommendations of restricting dietary cholesterol, you can still use the food label to monitor and limit cholesterol consumption.
While the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, the American Heart Association advises moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults to improve overall blood pressure and heart health.
Sodium can be found naturally in many foods. It is also a central component of table salt, so it is wise to watch your added salt intake. One teaspoon of regular table salt contains about 2,300 mg of sodium, the whole day’s recommended intake.
Carbohydrates typically make up the bulk of a balanced diet. They contain energy and include sugars, starches and dietary fiber.
The total carbohydrate value is beneficial for people with diabetes who watch their carbohydrate intake. For counting, 15 grams of total carbohydrate is considered one carbohydrate serving.
There are two types of fiber, and most plant foods contain some of each kind:
- Insoluble fiber provides bulk to keep your bowels regular
- Soluble fiber helps reduce your cholesterol
Fiber also makes you feel full, which may help you eat less and stay satisfied longer. More than 90% of women and 97% of men do not meet recommended intakes of dietary fiber. Aim for 20 to 30 grams of dietary fiber per day.
Labels for foods and beverages with added sugars will list the number of grams and the percent. Total sugars include sugars naturally present in many nutritious foods and drinks, such as sugar in milk and fruits and any added sugars present in the product.
Consuming too many added sugars can make it hard to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits. Added sugars include sugars added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices.
Total sugars are already included within the total carbohydrate amount. Added sugars should be limited to less than 10% of calories per day.
Protein can help build and maintain lean body mass, cell function, skin, hair and organs. It also aids in wound healing and helps to keep you feeling full longer. Protein needs will vary per person based on size, activity and medical conditions.
But excessive protein intake can put undue stress on your body and organs. Talk with your dietitian about your individual protein needs.
Make the label work for you
For unpackaged whole food like fresh produce, turn to the USDA’s FoodData Central, the FDA’s raw nutrition flyers or a food tracking app to get a snapshot of your food’s component nutrients.
If you’re shopping online, it’s important to do your homework. Federal labeling requirements are currently only required on the physical packaging of food and beverage products.
Think of the Nutrition Facts label as your personal assistant to help you make healthy, informed decisions—generally choosing food higher in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium, and lower in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.
Need more healthy eating advice? Connect with a dietitian today.
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