How to Read Nutrition Labels

Food manufacturers often present their products in a way that makes them appear healthy and good for you, even when they are not. You can find the truth on the Nutrition and Facts label required by the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the packaging of all processed foods. Learning to read and interpret these labels will make you a smarter shopper and put you in control of your food choices. 

The top section of the label tells you the serving size and number of servings per container, followed by the number of calories per serving. The serving size is important because it tells you how many calories you are consuming. For example, if a candy bar wrapper tells you that the candy bar contains 240 calories per serving, and there are two servings in the package, you will be consuming 440 calories if you eat the whole candy bar. A 440-calorie snack makes up one-fifth to one-third of the 1,500 to 2,000 calories you need for the entire day. For a single portion of any food, 40 calories is low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 calories is high.  

The next section of the label tells you how many of those calories come from fat. Experts recommend a diet in which about 20% or less of the calories are from fat. In other words, for every 100 total calories you consume, only 20 should be calories from fat. Of course, some food items, like salad dressings, naturally have a high fat content. Be aware of how much you are consuming, and factor those calories into your total fat intake for the day.  

Next, the label tells you what type of fat you are consuming. Saturated fats are found in foods of animal origin and are converted to cholesterol by the liver. Polyunsaturated fats are generally from plant sources, and are healthier. Vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, safflower, and sunflower oil, are high in polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats come from plants and include olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil. This section of the label also lists cholesterol content and sodium content. 

Hydrogen atoms are sometimes added to unsaturated fats through a process called hydrogenation to stabilize them and make them solid at room temperature. Trans fat formed during the process of hydrogenation has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease. Trans fats are often used in commercial baked goods. Since the FDA began requiring trans fats to be listed on food labels in 2003, many manufacturers have removed them from their products. However, FDA guidelines allow manufacturers to list “0 trans fat” if the product contains less than 0.5 gm of trans fat. That means you could still consume a significant amount of trans fat if you eat several servings. Look for the words “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients list. 

The Percent Daily Value (%DV) down the right side of the label tells you what percentage of the recommended daily amount of fat, dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron are contained in a single portion. For any nutrient, 5% is considered low and 20% is high.  

Ingredients are listed in order according to the amount of that ingredient in the food. Be wary of foods that list added sugars (corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, maple syrup) among the first ingredients on the label. You can find out by looking at the list of ingredients if a food that advertises itself as “Lite” or “No Sugar Added” contains artificial sweeteners or is natural and unsweetened. 

In addition to the Nutrition Facts label, some foods include claims about nutritional content in their product levels. These terms are strictly defined by the FDA: fat free (less than 0.5 grams of fat), low fat (3 grams of fat or less), high fiber (5 grams or more of fiber), calorie free (less than 5 calories), sugar free (less than 0.5 grams of sugar), and so on.   

The meanings of other terms, such as “organic,” “natural,” and “energy,” are not clearly regulated. Some products are marked with the logos of independent certifying agencies that verify the product meets certain standards.  

You can find nutritional information about fresh foods like meat, vegetables, and fruit in a calorie guide or on a health website.   

Always look at the ingredients on the package to see what you are actually consuming. There is a big difference between a sugary “fruit drink” and 100% fruit juice. A low-fat food can still contain large amounts of cholesterol. A whole-grain, high-fiber breakfast cereal can be loaded with extra calories from fat and sugar. 


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