Decoding Food Labels

Have you ever picked up your favorite item at the store only to look at the Nutrition Facts label and wonder what all those numbers and terms mean? The Nutrition Facts label has also been making headlines on the news recently for proposed changes. If you are wondering what these terms mean and how to use them to eat healthfully, we have information on how to decode your favorite foods using the Nutrition Facts label.


• Serving Size: Always start by looking at the serving size under the Nutrition Facts heading. For example, it could be 5-6 crackers, 2 Tablespoons of dried fruit, or one-half cup of cereal. If your portion size (the amount you actually eat) is greater than the serving size listed, you will be eating more calories, fat, protein, etc. than is listed on the label. For instance, if the serving size listed is 1 cup but you consume 2 cups, you are consuming twice the calories, fat, carbohydrates and all other nutrients listed on the label. The Servings Per Container can also tell you how many servings are in the package you are holding.

• Calories: This will tell you how many calories are in a single serving of the item you are consuming. Again the serving listed may be different than the portion you consume and eating too many calories overall for the day can lead to weight gain.

• Total Fat: This will tell you how much total fat is in 1 serving of the item you intend to eat. Some labels will also have the fats broken down into categories which are included in the total fat count. The four different types of fat include: saturated, trans, mono-, and polyunsaturated fats. Remember to limit your saturated and trans fats as much as possible to promote heart health. For a 2,000 calorie diet, total fat should average 55-75 grams total for the day with the majority coming from poly- and monounsaturated fats.

• Percent Daily Value: These are based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. Remember everyone’s calorie needs are different depending on goals, gender, and physical activity and the best way to figure out your needs is to meet with a Registered Dietitian. Percent daily values are for the entire day, not just one meal or snack. For example, an item with 15% of your daily value for carbohydrates, means you are consuming 15% of the total carbohydrate needed for a 2,000 calorie diet based on current recommendations. A 5% or less daily value is considered a low source of the item whereas 20% or more is considered a high source.

• Total Carbohydrate: Persons with diabetes or pre-diabetes will want to focus on this number. Our bodies need carbohydrates to function but just as with calories, excess amounts can lead to weight gain and increased triglyceride levels. This number includes both the dietary fiber and sugars that are listed underneath it. Try to limit added sugar content and aim for high fiber foods with whole grains or fruits/vegetables with greater than 5 grams per serving.

• Protein: Most Americans eat more protein than needed so a percent daily value is not required on the label. Try to include lean protein sources in your diet including beans, peanut butter, tofu, fish, eggs, lean beef, poultry, low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and nuts. Most people need about 5-6 ounces per day but this can vary based on individual needs.

• Vitamins and Minerals: These are listed by percent daily value and include Vitamin A and C and calcium and iron. There are many other vitamins and minerals in the foods we eat but these are the ones required to be on the food label by the Food and Drug Administration who oversee the labels. Eat foods with a variety of vitamins and minerals to promote overall health.

• Ingredient List: Foods with more than one ingredient must have a list on the label. They are listed in descending order by weight. In other words, the ones that appear in the highest quantity in the product are listed first.

One thought on “Decoding Food Labels

  1. Pingback: Decoding Food Labels – Upland Hills Health

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