How to Read a Nutrition Label, According to Dietitians
When you're picking out a road trip snack from the gas station or a box of cereal from the supermarket, the price tag is likely the first piece of info you reference in order to decide if it's worth munching on. But based on the slew of useful facts and figures on a food's nutrition label, that panel on the back of the package should be where your eyes go next.
The nutrition label offers valuable insight to shoppers by showing exactly how much fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients a serving of a particular food offers. That way, you'll be able to make an informed decision to add it to your plate — or not.
"While it is important for everyone to have a basic level of understanding about the nutrition label, some special populations especially benefit from referencing a label when making food choices, particularly those with diabetes and hypertension," says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and Shape Brain Trust member. Folks living with diabetes will find the carbohydrate and fiber section of the label useful in determining the impact a food will have on their blood sugar level, while people with cardiovascular disorders can look to the sodium content to decide if a food is a smart addition to their diet, she explains.
A quick word of caution: The nutrition label is based on a 2,000-calorie diet, and you might need to eat additional or fewer calories based on your unique needs. Regardless, the nutrition facts label can still be useful, as long as you take it with a grain of salt, says Whitney English, M.S., R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and the author of The Plant-Based Baby & Toddler. "People can still use them to determine whether a product is high or low in certain nutrients, [but they] should keep in mind that their individual needs may differ from the average person's," she says.
Okay, so how exactly do you decipher that panel of numbers and percentages? Here, Feller and English break down how to read a nutrition label, including which facts to focus on.
When you're figuring out how to read a nutrition label properly, you'll need to first reference the food's serving size — typically listed in cups or pieces and the number of grams — and the number of servings in a package (aka servings per container). You might think the serving size on a nutrition label is the amount of that particular food health experts and nutritionists recommend you eat at a time, but in reality, it reflects the average amount of food people typically eat or drink based on food consumption surveys, says English.
It can be helpful to look to this number as a guide to decide roughly how much you should add to your plate, but you might eat a bit more or less than the listed serving size to feel full and meet your personal health goals, says Feller. "I recommend that people base portion sizes on their individual dietary needs and listen to their body's hunger and fullness cues when plating," adds English. (Related: Finally, An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Healthy Portion Sizes)
Still, it's important to check out the serving size when reading a nutrition label since the calories and the nutrient amounts listed are based on that figure — not the total package or container amount. If you end up eating two servings' worth of hummus, for example, you'll be consuming double the amount of nutrients (i.e. fat, fiber, protein) and calories listed, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Simply put, calories provide a measure of how much energy you'll get from a serving of a certain food. When you're first figuring out how to read a nutrition label, you might automatically look to the caloric content, which is the biggest and boldest number on the panel. But it's not the most important number to consider when making a food choice. "Calories themselves provide very little insight into how 'healthy' a food actually is," says Feller. "It seems that foods with the least amount of calories are thought to have a health halo and are considered the best option, while those higher in calories should be avoided. [But] the nutrient profile of any food matters much more than calories." (Related: The #1 Reason to Stop Counting Calories)
Take nuts and seeds, for instance. While these foods are higher in calories than carrots or cucumbers, it doesn't mean they're not as healthy as the veggies, and both can have a spot on your plate, says Feller. Not to mention, "a more calorie-dense food, such as an avocado, that provides many essential micronutrients and phytochemicals is going to be a better choice in supporting metabolic health than a lower-calorie option that is nutritionally void," she adds.
Instead of looking at the caloric content to gauge whether or not a food is "good for you," English recommends referring to how satisfied it might make you feel. "Looking at the number of calories in a product can help you determine how much of the food you'd need to eat to feel full," she says. "But they're just one factor — fiber, fat, and protein will also affect satiety."
On every nutrition label, you'll find key macro and micronutrients, including total fat (broken down into saturated and trans fats), cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, added sugars (which are added during the processing), total sugars (the amount of added sugars plus the sugars that are naturally present in a food) protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. You might see a few other micronutrients, but they won't be listed on the nutrition facts panel unless there's a specific claim made about that nutrient, and they're disclosed by the manufacturer on a voluntary basis, says Feller.
You'll also see the percent of the Daily Value (%DV), which is the amount — in percentage form — of a specific nutrient present in one serving of that food, says Feller. A nutrient's daily value is set by the FDA, and it's meant to help you know the amount of a particular nutrient found in a serving of food in relation to their rough dietary requirement for that nutrient, according to the National Institutes of Health. While they're often similar to the Recommended Dietary Allowances or Adequate Intakes determined by the United States Department of Agriculture, they're not always exactly the same, per the NIH.
"It's based on the 2,000 daily calorie intake number present on all nutrition labels," she explains. "For example, a serving of oatmeal may contain 2 mg of iron, which is 10 percent of the %DV of iron for someone who eats 2,000 calories per day." With a quick glance, the %DV can tell you if a serving of food is high in a nutrient (20 percent or more) or low (5 percent or less), and how much of each nutrient a serving of the food contributes to your daily diet, according to the FDA.
Out of all the nutrients listed, only trans fat and total sugars will not have a %DV. There isn't enough information available to establish a Daily Value for trans fat, according to the FDA, and no government organizations have recommended a consumption limit for a total amount of sugars. In most cases, you won't see a %DV for protein either, as it's only required to be listed if a product claims to be "high in protein" or if it's intended for children under four years old since most people above that age group score enough of the nutrient through diet naturally, per the FDA. (Related: The Ultimate List of High-Protein Foods You Should Eat Every Week)
When to Look for a High %DV
When learning how to read a nutrition label and doing so going forward, you'll typically want to look for a higher %DV for dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium — nutrients that Americans generally don't consume enough of, according to the FDA. Fiber is the key to keeping your bowel movements regular, controlling blood sugar levels, and helping you feel full faster; vitamin D and calcium help keep your bones strong; iron helps carry oxygen through your blood to all parts of your body and is particularly important for those with heavy periods, as they lose significant amounts of the mineral through menstrual bleeding; and potassium helps your kidneys and heart function properly. Plus, "many special populations, such as children, pregnant women, and older adults, may be at increased risk of developing nutrient deficiencies and could benefit from paying special attention to the macro and micronutrients of significance, such as calcium, vitamin D, iron, and protein, to ensure they're consuming sufficient amounts," says Feller.
TL;DR: It's important to try to consume enough of each nutrient that the %DVs from all the foods you eat in a day adds up to 100 percent — or, realistically, as close as you can get to it — and you should make a habit to check the %DVs when you're getting the hang of how to read a nutrition label.
When to Look for a Low %DV
On the flip side, you'll generally want to look for a lower %DV for added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium — nutrients that people living in the U.S. tend to consume in higher-than-ideal amounts, says Feller. ICYDK, saturated fat can increase the amount of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" kind), upping the risk of heart disease and stroke, when consumed in excess, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Similarly, consuming sodium in excess increases blood pressure, which also raises the risk of heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eating and drinking too many added or artificial sugars, which Feller says are added to the product to improve flavor but don't provide any nutritional benefit, can contribute to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and, once again, heart disease, per the CDC.
Of course, that doesn't mean you have to give up charcuterie and desserts for good just because they boast higher amounts of those nutrients. If you want to eat something that's high in saturated fat, sodium, or sugar, it's perfectly okay to do so — as long as you balance it with foods that are lower in those nutrients throughout the rest of the day, according to the FDA. Better yet, pair those sweet treats with fiber (think: a brownie with a side of fruit) to prevent your blood sugar from spiking, or nosh on those salty potato chips with a potassium-rich banana to help balance out the sodium. So after you've mastered how to read a nutrition label, go ahead and eat that chocolate chip cookie you've been eyeing — you'll know how to fuel up with foods that will help you get those other key nutrients later.