A Dietitian’s Guide on How to Read Nutrition Labels for Healthy Eating
Understanding what’s in the foods that line your grocery store’s shelves can help you make healthier food choices to support a healthy diet. Unfortunately, reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists can be a challenge, especially since most people are never taught how to decipher them. But don’t worry—our dietitian’s got you covered with this no-nonsense guide on how to read nutrition labels for healthy eating.
How to read nutrition labels for healthy eating
Did you know, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that all packaged foods in the U.S. were required to bear nutrition labeling? Then in 2016, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) used updated scientific information to create a new and improved version of the Nutrition Facts label, which manufacturers weren’t required to adopt until just a few years ago. Their intent was to make it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices, yet many were left even more unsure of how to read a nutrition label.
Let the confusion end here and now. Making healthier food choices starts with a good understanding of how to read food labels. So, let’s start at the top, shall we?
Nutrition Facts: Serving Size
Under the title “Nutrition Facts,” you’ll see the serving size and number of servings per container. Despite what many people think, the serving size it is not meant as a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.
By law, the serving size is supposed to reflect the amount that people typically eat or drink. However, it’s important to keep in mind that it still may be more or less than what you eat or drink in a sitting.
Servings per container meaning
Be mindful of the servings per container. The nutrient amounts listed on the label are for one serving at the given serving size. So, if you eat this entire container, you’ll have to multiply all the nutrient amounts by 5.
Nutrition Facts: Calories
Calories tell you the amount of energy you get from a serving of this food or drink. In this example, there are 240 calories in one serving. If you ate the entire package—or 5 total servings—then you would consume 1,200 calories.
Although the fundamental principle of weight manipulation is calorie control (i.e., calories in versus calories out), the calorie number on a nutrition label isn’t always a good indicator of whether something is a healthy choice. And despite it being the largest and boldest number on the nutrition label, it’s not necessarily the most important number.
Instead of stressing too much over calorie quantity, focus on calorie quality. What are you getting for those calories? We’re looking for fiber, protein, and healthy unsaturated fats. If it contributes vitamins and minerals, even better.
P.S. By focusing on calorie quality and choosing foods that provide the most bang for your calorie buck, you can reduce or control calorie quantity naturally.
Nutrition Facts: Total Fat
Fat is critical to the structure and function of the body and helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins—(vitamins A, D, E, and K). And no, eating fat does not make you fat unless consumed in excess. That said, at 9 calories per gram, fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient, so the calories can add up quickly.
Saturated fat vs unsaturated fat
Not all fats are created equal, which is why it’s recommended to limit saturated fats in favor of unsaturated ones. Saturated fat may not be as inherently villainous as we once thought, but, despite the headlines, it’s no celebrity comeback story, either.
We know that increased intake of saturated fats can increase well-known heart disease risk factors—notably, LDL-cholesterol levels—and dietary patterns consistently associated with lower rates of heart disease tend to be lower in saturated fat. We also know that decades of research have indicated that unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats) are preferable to saturated fats when it comes to cardiometabolic health, and replacing the latter with the former may reduce your risk of heart disease.
For these reasons, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10% of calories per day by replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats (i.e., mono-and poly-unsaturated fats).
As for Trans Fat, always look for zero grams. This shouldn’t be an issue, since as of 2018, partially hydrogenated oils—the main source of trans fat in the food supply—are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe by the FDA and are therefore no longer added to foods.
Food manufacturers aren’t required to list the amount of unsaturated fats in a product, but to calculate the unsaturated fat content simply subtract the saturated fat from the total fat.
Speaking of unsaturated fats, what’s the deal with seed oils? If unsaturated fats are healthy, why is there so much controversy surrounding seed oils on social media? We’ve put the seed oil skepticism to rest in our latest article: Seriously, Are Seed Oils Bad For You? A Dietitian Weighs In.
Nutrition Facts: Sodium
Sodium is a micronutrient that is essential (in small amounts) for maintaining proper fluid balance and powering nerve impulses and muscle contractions.
However, excess sodium intake can put you at greater risk of developing high blood pressure, aka hypertension. If you have high blood pressure, the heart has to work harder to pump blood. Left untreated, high blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and other serious health issues.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg/day—that’s only about 1 teaspoon of salt! But the average American greatly exceeds this recommended limit, consuming about 3,400 mg/day.
Nutrition Facts: Total Carbohydrate
Despite what you’ve heard, carbs are friend, not foe. To be clear, that doesn’t mean you should treat all carbohydrate-rich food sources the same. Common sense tells us that oats and frosted flakes—two carbohydrate-rich breakfast foods—are not equal. But by focusing on carb quality, you can stress less over carb quantity.
The quality, carbohydrate-rich foods you want to choose most of the time have little to no added sugar and retain their fiber, which helps slow digestion and the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
What is total carbohydrate?
The grams of Total Carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts label includes the amounts of dietary fiber, sugar, and starch—the three types of carbohydrate—in the product, although only the amounts for the first two are listed on the label. The amount of starch is not included on the Nutrition Facts label, but subtracting the Dietary Fiber and the Total Sugars from the Total Carbohydrate gives an estimate of the amount of starch in the food product.
How to read carbs on labels
When looking at the carbohydrate amounts on the label, pay more attention to Dietary Fiber and Total Sugars, particularly Added Sugars.
Unlike with the other carbohydrate types (sugars and starches), the body can’t break down fiber and (directly) use it for energy because it doesn’t have the digestive enzymes needed to do so. Instead, fiber works its magic by sliding through your gut relatively intact but not unnoticed. It feeds beneficial gut bacteria, fills you up (without filling you out), promotes bowel health and regularity, and more.
It’s thought that a lack of dietary fiber is a primary feature of the typical Western diet that has led to a rise in chronic disease. In fact, only about 5 percent of Americans meet the daily fiber recommendation of 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day. The average American consumes just half that—about 15 grams of fiber per day.
Pro Tip: When on the hunt for nutritious carbohydrate-rich foods, look for a 10:1 ratio (or less) of total carbohydrates to dietary fiber—the lower the better. (For example, if a product has 30 grams total carbs, you want at least 3 grams of fiber). An easy way to calculate this when looking at a nutrition label is to add a zero to the fiber number. It should be at least equal to but preferably greater than the total carbohydrate number. When looking for nutritious, fiber-rich bread options, look for closer to a 5:1 ratio. So, when you add a zero to the fiber number it should be at least double the total carbohydrate number.
One of the major updates that came out of the 2016 revision of the Nutrition Facts label was the addition of an Added Sugars line right under Total Sugars. Added sugars are sugar added to food and beverages during the manufacturing process, and the total sugar amount is comprised of both added sugars and those that are naturally occurring.
Although you shouldn’t ignore the Total Sugars line, it’s more important to focus on the Added Sugars amount as it can tell you more about the nutritional quality of a product. For example, looking at the Total Sugars of a single-serve container of Chobani Vanilla Greek yogurt—which lists 14 grams of Total Sugars—might not tell you much. After all, dairy is naturally rich in lactose—a sugar. But move your eyes down to the Added Sugars line and you’ll see that only a third of that total sugar content is naturally-occurring, with two-thirds of it having been added to the product.
This doesn’t mean sweetened yogurts and added sugars can’t have a place in a balanced diet—they certainly can. It’s simply something to be mindful of as added sugars are essentially empty calories, and diets high in them have been linked to an increased risk of overweight/obesity, weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.
How much added sugar should you limit yourself to? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories per day. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars even further to no more than 6% of total daily calories, which translates to approximately 25 grams (or 6 teaspoons) per day for women and 36 grams (or 9 teaspoons) per day for men. According to the FDA, the average American consumes significantly more than that, taking in 270 calories of added sugar per day—that’s almost 70 grams of added sugar!
Nutrition Facts: Protein
Every cell in the human body contains protein, and therefore, it is a crucial component of any diet. Dietary proteins supply amino acids (i.e., “building blocks”) for the growth and maintenance of all of our cells and tissues—like muscles, bones, cartilage, and skin. Amino acids also support the production of hemoglobin (the protein that transports oxygen throughout the body) and many hormones and enzymes (like the digestive enzymes that help break down the food you eat).
Most Americans don’t have a problem meeting and even exceeding their daily protein needs. That said, protein is the most satiating macronutrient, so it doesn’t hurt to prioritize protein in your packaged foods, especially when it comes to packaged snack products. When looking for a nutritious and satiating packaged snack product, look for least 5 to 10 grams protein on the label. If there’s more, great!
Nutrition Facts: Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium are the only micronutrients required to be on the Nutrition Facts label. Food manufacturers may list other vitamins and minerals should they choose to; however, this isn’t required.
Vitamin D and potassium were added during the 2016 update of the Nutrition Facts label, replacing vitamins A and C since deficiencies of these vitamins are now rare. Unfortunately, many Americans fall short on the four micronutrients currently listed on the Nutrition Facts label. Getting enough calcium and Vitamin D, potassium, and iron can reduce the risk of osteoporosis, hypertension, and anemia, respectively, which is why the FDA chose to highlight them on the label.
Percent Daily Value
The % Daily Value (%DV) column shows the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. You’ll see a %DV listed for everything on the label except for Total Sugars—because there is no Daily Value for this—and protein. Food manufacturers may list the %DV for protein should they choose to, but they are not required to do so unless they’ve made a statement on the package concerning the health effects or the amount of protein (such as “high protein”) in the food product.
What are Daily Values?
Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs), established by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies, tell us how much of each nutrient is required on a daily basis to keep 97 to 98 percent of all individuals healthy. Since the RDAs vary according to age, sex and life stage, they contain too much information to include on the Nutrition Facts label. To solve this problem, the FDA came up with the Daily Values—just one number per nutrient that refers to how much of that nutrient you should consume or limit yourself to based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
For example, the Daily Value for fiber is 28 grams per day (based on a 2,000 calorie diet). If a food product contains 7 grams of fiber, the %DV listed would be 25%. As another example, the Daily Value for saturated fat is less than 20 grams per day (based on a 2,000 calorie diet). If a food product contains 2 grams of saturated fat, the %DV listed would be 10%.
The % Daily Values can can help you determine if a serving of a particular food is high or low in specific nutrients. According to the FDA, manufacturers can claim a food product is a “good source” of [insert nutrient here] if it contains 10 to 19% of the Daily Value per serving, or is “high”, “rich in”, or an “excellent source of” [insert nutrient here] if it contains 20% or more of the Daily Value per serving.
Interpreting the ingredients list
Much like the Nutrition Facts label, the ingredients list can be a challenging read. Here are some tips for interpreting the ingredients list, and what to look for when shopping for healthy foods:
- Ingredients are listed in order by weight. Since the first few ingredients listed are also the main ingredients in the product, it’s best if sugar isn’t one of them, especially if it’s a savory product. (This doesn’t apply if you’re buying dessert, in which case sugar will likely be at the top of the ingredient list—and that’s okay!)
- Is added sugar hiding under a different name? Brown sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, maple syrup, malt sugar, molasses, and syrup sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose) are just some of the many names added sugar goes by.
- If it’s a grain-based product using wheat flour, you’ll want to see the word “whole” in front of it (e.g., “whole wheat flour” instead of just “wheat flour” or “enriched wheat flour”) or “sprouted.“ Sprouted grains are by necessity whole grains because you can’t sprout a refined grain.
- Err on the side of a shorter ingredient list. Products with lengthy ingredient lists tend to be more processed and refined.
Making healthier food choices starts with learning how to read nutrition labels. When examining nutrition labels to find nutritious food and beverage options, look for products that give you more bang (fiber and/or protein) for your calorie buck and that limit saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium.
And when enjoying your foods and beverages, keep the serving sizes and servings per container in mind.