How to Read Everything on the Nutrition Facts Label
This dietitian’s practical advice for deciphering nutrition labels.
Honestly, nutrition labels are very confusing, despite the fact that they’re meant to help us figure out what we’re putting in our bodies, so we can make nutritious choices. Labels like low calorie, gluten free, vegan, NO GMOs lead many of us to assume, “Great, I can obviously eat this entire bag of overly-processed chips without consequence.” It’s certified organic, after all, so it must be healthy!
Not so fast, friends.
As a child of the 80s and 90s, I understand this thinking. During those decades, low fat was the craze and we acted like anything with the words “low fat” scrolled across the box meant free-for-unlimited-consumption. I’m here to tell you there is a science to understanding these claims and all of the numbers on the label. For a crash course on the Nutrition Facts label and how to decipher what it says, keep on reading.
Health Claims Are There to Lure Us In
First, we have to scrutinize the claims on the front of any food package. Trendy terms like low fat, gluten free and low sodium are how you get lured in. For example, low fat may sound like a great option, but the sugar content may be as high as 25 g. Why does this matter? A very quick biochemistry lesson here: When companies create a low-fat processed food, they have to do something to make it taste semi-decent and to make the texture appealing. More often than not, they add sugar, which can mimic the same mouthfeel of fat (think: creamy). That high level of added sugar tells your liver to make calories and store — guess what? — fat. So, even though you consumed a technically “low fat food,” your body made the fat anyway. Furthermore, you probably ended up overeating it because you didn’t feel full thanks to the empty calories from all of that added sugar.
Bottom line? A health claim doesn’t always mean that a food is healthy. For example, a food labeled as, say, low sodium (sounds super healthy, right?) can quickly become a high sodium food if you consume multiple servings. I mean, how many people count out 22 chips? This the perfect segue into…
Servings per Container and Serving Sizes
Serving sizes are a useful tool for telling us how many nutrients we’re consuming. When you take a look toward the top of the Nutrition Facts label you’ll see the servings per container and the serving size. Pay close attention to the serving size. All of the information on the label will typically refer to what is in just 1 serving size. So, if you’re making pasta and the serving size is 2 ounces (aka a 1/4 cup) of dry pasta and that serving size contains 200 calories of pasta, what happens when you have 1 cup? You end up having 4 servings. So, 4 servings x 200 calories per serving means you may have actually consumed 800 calories. And I mean let’s be real, I don’t know anyone who eats 1/4 cup of pasta. The point is food companies know that 200 calories will look way more appealing to a shopper than 800 calories. Once again, it’s companies trying to lure you in.
This carries over to all the other nutrients on the label. If 1 serving of a food has 120 mg of sodium, it can technically be labeled as a “low sodium” food. However, if you eat 3 servings, triple that number, and now you’re consuming 360 mg of sodium, which no longer falls into the low sodium category (less than 140 mg per serving).
Bottom line: When you’re reading your labels, always consider the servings. Oh, and what happens when we eat the whole bag of chips because they’re so irresistible? In a standard 8-ounce bag of chips there are 8 servings. 1 serving = 15 chips = 160 calories = 170 mg of sodium. The whole bag =1280 calories and 1360 mg of sodium.
What About the Nutrients On the Label?
Here’s a breakdown of what all of those lines on Nutrition Facts actually mean.
Here’s a tricky one. First, you’ll see Total Fat right below the serving sizes. Total Fat then gets broken down further into saturated fat, trans fat, and sometimes monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. What should you be paying attention to? What do each of these mean and how do they impact health?
Total Fat: This number only tell you the total amount of fat in 1 serving of food. Keep in mind that we want to get about 20% to 35% of our total calories from fat each day based on the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) to promote overall health. If you want to figure out the grams of fat that it will take you to get about 30% of fat in your diet each day do the following:
- Estimate your total calories for the day. Let’s say that number is 1600 calories. Take that 1600 and multiply it by 0.30 (based on our goal of getting 30% of our calories from fat). You’ll get 480 calories. Then, to figure out the grams of fat you want to aim for each day, divide that number by 9. Why? Because for every 1 gram of fat there are 9 calories. So, you’ll get ~53 grams in this case. While I don’t recommend obsessively calculating this or counting your grams of fat each day, I think it’s helpful to have a rough idea of where you want to be.
Unsaturated Fats: Let’s start with the good news. Not all fats are bad. Unsaturated fats come in two main forms: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These types of fats have been linked to heart health. Monos are found in foods like olive oil, canola oil, avocados, and many nuts and nut butter. Polys are found in walnuts, flaxseeds, and fatty fish. One of the most famous polyunsaturated fats? Omega-3s.
Saturated Fat: This is a type of fat you really want to pay attention to because it’s linked to increases in our LDL or “bad” cholesterol. The current recommendations for the general public are to have saturated fat make up <10% of your daily intake. The American Heart Association has even stricter guidelines that recommend just 5 to 6%. It’s not an easy recommendation to understand because, of course, the labels are all in grams. To get an idea of where you roughly want to be when it comes to saturated fat, follow the math method above, but swap out the 30% with 10%. If you’re eating 1600 calories, that equals about 17 grams of saturated fat per day. If you want to go with the American Heart Association’s recommendations, that number will be 8.8 grams for the entire day. For reference, a typical fast food burger has 8 or more grams of saturated fat.
Trans Fat: This number needs to be ZERO. Literally this needs to be less than 1% of your daily calories. Foods that contain trans fats are baked goods like cakes and cookies, microwave popcorn, margarine and, of course, fried foods. Obviously, it’s unrealistic to never to eat any of these things, but it’s important to remember that trans fat increases your LDL (bad) cholesterol, which is known to harden arteries and is the indicator for heart attack and stroke. Plus, trans fat can lower your HDL (good) cholesterol. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list, that’s a sure way to know that there’s trans fat lurking in your food, and you should probably avoid that food.
Bottom line: When looking at the fat breakdown of the food, aim for those with no trans fat, a minimal amount of saturated fat, and more mono- and poly-unsaturated fats to promote heart health.
The recommendation for sodium is about 2300 mg per day, which is about 1 teaspoon of table salt. Seems like a tiny amount, right? When you are looking at a packaged item, here are some things to keep in mind.
- Salt/Sodium-Free = Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
- Very Low Sodium = 35 mg of sodium or less per serving
- Low Sodium = 140 mg of sodium or less per serving
If you don’t have any blood pressure issues, and you aren’t eating tons of packaged, overly processed foods your sodium level are probably okay. But keep in mind that, on average, Americans probably consume about 3400 mg of sodium per day, so we want to pick lower sodium items when possible — without overeating them.
Do we love them or hate them? Just like with fat, there’s a lot going on with carbs. Here’s the breakdown and what you want to focus on.
Total Carbohydrates: This is the total amount of carbs in the food. This gets broken down into dietary fiber (sometimes further broken down into soluble and insoluble fiber), total sugars, and added sugars. What do we want to limit? What do we want to make sure we’re getting enough of?
Fiber: Fiber is the holy grail in my book, and I’m always paying attention to this on a nutrition label to make sure I’m getting as much bang for my buck out of my food. Fiber helps you feel full, it helps with weight management and blood sugar control, it promotes gut health, and it’s probably why my skin glows so much. The recommendation is about 28 grams per day for women and 35 grams per day for men. Guess what the average American eats daily? About 15 grams. Hello, constipation nation. A high fiber food is 5 g or more, but I can live with 3 g since that’s a pretty decent amount if the fiber is naturally occurring. When we see packaged foods with 15 to 20 g of fiber, that is generally from inulin or chicory, which are carbohydrates that your body does not digest. There isn’t anything wrong with these forms of fiber, but they can wreak havoc on your intestines (hello, gas, bloating, and diarrhea), so you want to be mindful when eating them.
If you see that the fiber section is broken down into soluble versus insoluble fiber, that’s great — we want both! Soluble can dissolve in fluids and, when it does, it forms a gel. This can feed the good bacteria in our guts and it also can help reduce our bad cholesterol and help promote stable blood sugar. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not dissolve in fluids. Instead, it absorbs fluids, which then causes these fibers to stick to other materials in the intestines to help form a soft bulky bowel movement. Bye, bye constipation.
Total Sugars vs. Added Sugars: Total sugars are the combination of the naturally occurring sugars in the food plus the sugars added during processing (aptly named added sugar). Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose), whereas added sugars include sucrose, brown sugar, dextrose, maple syrup, honey, agave, coconut sugar, glucose syrup, beet sugar, invert sugar, the list goes on. In fact, there are more than 60 added sugars commonly used in the US.
Just because a sugar is branded some type of way to make it seem healthier, it’s metabolized the same way as white sugar and affects your blood sugar the same way as white sugar. In other words, agave, honey, and coconut sugar have the same impact on your blood sugar as regular old table sugar. As a general rule, I’m looking for total sugars of 10 grams or less per serving and I aim to have the smallest amount of added sugar in my diet each day. Why am I avoiding the added sugar? In general, excess sugar gets metabolized and stored as fat leading to weight gain. It’s also totally void of any nutrients and will send your blood sugar skyrocketing leading to that eventual, absolutely miserable sugar crash. High intakes of added sugar have been shown to contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories from added sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for most women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for most men.
Protein generally has no % daily value because everyone’s needs are different. However, it’s a good thing to note however when trying to gauge the nutrient density of a packaged item. If you’re looking to eat a bar to hold you over until dinner time, and it has only 2 g of protein, it’s likely not going to do the trick. Something with 8 grams or more of protein is a better choice. Why? Protein promotes fullness and helps maintain consistent blood sugar levels. Bye, sugar crash.
Vanessa Rissetto received her MS in Marketing at NYU and completed her Dietetic Internship at Mount Sinai Hospital where she worked as a Senior Dietitian for five years. She is certified in Adult Weight Management (Levels I & II) by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the founder of Culina Health. Her work in private practice also includes treatment of GI disorders, bariatric surgery, weight management, PCOS, and family nutrition. She loves helping clients take an active role in their health journey, motivating them and ensuring that they always achieve success. Vanessa was named by one of the top 5 black nutritionists that will change the way you think about food by Essence magazine. Vanessa lives in Hoboken NJ with her husband, two kids and their new goldendoodle Freddie. An exercise enthusiast, she is always up for a class as long as it's after she rides her Peloton.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.