The Nutrition Label: Understanding and Interpreting What it Means!

Understanding a nutrition facts label may seem complicated, but it is actually easier than you think!  The nutrition facts label is placed on most food items in the grocery store, with a few exceptions like some fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood.  The food label is made to assist the consumer in determining what is in a particular food product.  In this blog, we will break down the nutrition label to make it more understandable to you, the consumer.  We will go through the label in a top-down approach, starting at the top of the label and proceeding, in order, to the bottom.

1. When looking at the top of the label, you will see that it has listed the serving size and servings per container.  The serving size is the amount of food that the nutrition label is based on.  For example, if the serving size of a particular cereal is ½ cup, then all the nutrients listed are given for the ½ cup serving.  If you eat more than the serving size, the amount of the nutrients on the nutrition label will be higher than given on the label; if you eat less than the serving size, the nutrients on the nutrition label will be lower than given on the label.  Serving sizes change according to the food product and/or brand, so it is best not to assume you know what the serving size of a food product is (always look!).  The servings per container gives you the total number of serving sizes that are available in the entire product.  Following our example, the total number of serving sizes in this particular food is 16.  If one serving size is ½ cup, the whole product has 8 cups worth of food.  Therefore, if you were to eat the entire box of cereal, you would have eaten 16 servings of the cereal, totaling to 8 cups.

2. Calories is the first nutrient section you come to on the label.  This section indicates how many calories are in one serving of that food product.  In the above example, this would be how many calories are in ½ cup of cereal.  Calories from Fat are located directly to the right of calories section.  This section indicates how many of the total calories come from fat.  In the cereal example, let’s say that there are 140 calories in one serving of cereal and the label indicates there are 20 calories from fat.  This means that 20 of the 140 calories are fat calories (calories resulting from fat).

3. Total Fat is the next nutrient section on the label.  This section indicates the total grams of fat in one serving of the food product.  This section is may be broken down into 1-4 subcategories, which are the 4 different types of fats.  The subcategories may include: saturated fat, trans fat, polyunsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat.  If any of the types of fat are listed, the number of grams of that particular fat in one serving of the food product will be listed.  Remember that saturated and trans fat are the bad fats and should be limited or avoided, while polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are the goods fats and should be the fats consumed.

4. Cholesterol is the section located under the fat section.  This section indicates the total number of milligrams of cholesterol that are in one serving size of that food product.

5. Sodium is the next nutrient section on the label.  This section indicates the total number of milligrams of sodium in one serving size of the food product.

6. Total Carbohydrate is the next section.  This section indicates the total grams of carbohydrate in one serving size of the food product.  This section has two subcategories: dietary fiber and sugars.  The number of grams in one serving of the food product are listed for both dietary fiber and sugars.

7. Protein is the next nutrient listed.  This section indicates the total grams of protein in one serving size of the food product.

8. The last nutrients that are required to be listed on the food label are Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron.  These are the only vitamins and minerals that are required to be on the nutrition label; however, certain food products may have additional vitamin and minerals listed, as desired by the food product’s manufacture.  The amount of each vitamin and mineral that are in one serving size of food are listed by the percent of the daily value (% DV) that is in that serving.  On the far right side of the nutrition label, you will also see that some of the other nutrients will have the % DV listed.

*Percent Daily Value is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.  Therefore, it gives you the percent of your total daily nutrient requirement that that particular nutrient gives you, if you were to consume 2,000 calories a day.  It is important to remember that, for weight maintenance, some people need less than 2,000 calories a day and some need more than 2,000 calories a day; thus, this is a good tool to use to estimate if you are meeting your daily nutrient needs, but is not accurate for all individuals since calorie needs vary. Your daily total calories should consist of 45-65% grains, 20-35% fats, and 10-15% protein.  Each vitamin and mineral requirement varies, but the nutrient label is a good guide to estimate if you are meeting your needs.  Keep in mind that the nutrient label does not list all of the vitamins and minerals that you need daily; thus, it is important to remember moderation, variety, and balance in your diet!

9. The ingredient listing for each food product is located directly underneath the nutrition facts label.  Ingredients are always listed in the order of the ingredient that contributes the most weight to that food product to the ingredient that contributes the least weight to that food product.  For example, if sugar is the first ingredient listed in a cereal, this means that the most abundant ingredient in that food is sugar.  Below the ingredient listing, most food products list the major allergen(s) that is/are in that food product.  However, someone with a food allergy should look through the ingredient listing very closely and not just rely on the allergen labeling to ensure they will not have a reaction to a food product.

10. There are also many health claims that show up on food packages. It is beneficial as a shopper and as a person with an interest in eating a healthy diet to know and understand what these claims mean! Here are some examples of the most commonly seen claims on food products:

Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving

Low cholesterol: 20 mg or less and 2 g of sat-fat per serving

Reduced:  At least 25 percent less of the nutrient or calories than the main product

Good source of: At least 10-19%  of the Daily Value of a vitamin or nutrient per serving

Calorie free: <5 calories per serving

– Fat free or sugar free: <.5 g of fat/sugar in a serving

– Low sodium: 140 mg or less per serving

– High in: 20% or more of Daily Value of a nutrient per serving

High fiber: 5 or more g per serving

With this brief break-down of the nutrition label, you will now be able to read the labels with ease!  Reading the food label is essential to choosing healthy, nutritious foods, so start today.  Practice will make perfect; practice using the nutrition label when making a food selection, and you will quickly master nutrition label reading.

References:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

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