Updated: Oct 19, 2020
By Amber Charles, MSPH, RDN
September 26, 2020
The nutrition facts label can be quite informative, yet it is often confusing. What is it really telling us?
What is the nutrition facts label?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated in 1994 that packaged foods and beverages must have a nutrition facts label.
This label tells you about the nutrient content of many foods and can help consumers make informed food choices that contribute to healthy eating habits.
What information do you find on a nutrition label?
In 2020, food labels must provide information on total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, total sugars, added sugars, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium.
These nutrients are identified as areas for public health concern as many populations overconsume some (e.g. added sugars) and are deficient in others (e.g. vitamin D).
How do I read the nutrition facts label?
Step 1: Note the serving size and the number of servings per container
Serving size is based on the amount of food that is typically eaten at one time, and it is not a recommendation of how much to eat.
The amount of the nutrient listed is based on one serving, and it is common for a package to contain more than one serving - so be sure to do the math if you are having multiple servings.
Some labels have two columns that distinguish the nutrients provided per serving compared to the entire package.
You can also check the serving size to make accurate comparisons between similar food products.
Step 2: Check the total calories
"Calories" refers to the energy provided from all macronutrient sources (carbohydrate, fat, protein) and alcohol, in a serving of the food.
Rule of thumb:
100 calories per serving of an individual packaged food is considered moderate
400 calories or more per serving of an individual packaged food is considered high
Step 3: Review the Percent Daily Value
Percent Daily Values (%DV) are based on a 2000 calorie diet, however, you can use them as a guide for your daily intake, whether you consume less or more calories.
Quick lesson on Percent Daily Value (DV)
5% DV or less: low/"poor source"
10-19% DV: moderate/“good source”
20% DV or greater: high/“rich source”
This can help you monitor nutrients you'd like to get more of and those you'd like to get less of.
Nutrients to get less of (yellow): Sodium, saturated fat and added sugars
Nutrients to get more of (green): Dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium
Example: If you'd like to get less sodium, a food with 20% DV of sodium is not a good choice, but if you're trying to get more calcium, 20% DV or higher is great!
Step 4: Review the ingredient list. It is a helpful tool, in addition to the facts label.
Ingredients are listed in descending order (by weight) - so the ingredient listed first makes up most of the product (most weight), and the ingredient listed last has the least weight.
To try and reduce the amount of processed foods consumed, look for ingredient lists that contain more nutrient-dense food items and fewer additives (read about nutrient dense foods here).
Pro-tip: Ingredients that contain added sugars often end in -ose
Step 5: Determine if this food fits into your eating pattern – is it a norm or an outlier?
You don’t have to give up a favorite food to have a healthy diet!
If your favorite food is high in a nutrient you want to get less of, or low in a nutrient you want to get more of, simply balance it with foods that are low (or high) in that nutrient at other times of the day (find balance).
Now that you can decode the nutrition facts label, go forth and make informed food choices!
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Interactive Nutrition Facts Label. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/#intro
Mahan K. Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process. In: 13th ed. ; 2012.