How To Read a Nutrition Label

0 Posted by - August 28, 2013 - NUTRITION


We are all busy with life.  The last thing you probably want to do is spend more time a week in the grocery store.   But the first step to eating right is understanding what you are eating.   Being mindful when your shop, carefully reading labels and knowing what to look for can save you calories per week and pounds per year.

So what exactly is important on the nutrition label?   Those black and white labels make for some pretty boring reading.  The bright packages that exclaim “Organic!“ “Low-Fat!” “Gluten-Free!” “Low Sodium!” already tell you all you need, right? Not so fast…they tell you what the food manufacturers want you to focus on.  Being an educated consumer is the best way to take care of your health.


First Things First…The Numbers

Size Matters

All the information on the label is based on ONE serving size so make sure you are eating just one serving or doubling /tripling/quadrupling all the numbers.   Most packages of food or drinks will contain more than one serving and portion control is one of the most important parts of healthy nutrition.  So when you buy a product that is more than one serving, immediately do the math.

For example, in a bag of tortilla chips, 1 serving size is 130 calories, but there are 5.5 serving.  The entire bag has 715 calories and this is the number you want to keep in mind in order to accurately keep track of how much you are eating.


The 2,000 Calorie Per Day Diet

Notice that values are calculated as a percent of daily value (%DV).  This is assuming that you will be eating 2,000 calories per day.  The FDA chose 2,000 calories as the average American’s caloric needs.  However, based on age, gender and activity you may need more or less calories per day.  The average female is estimated to need between 1800 to 2400 calories; while the average male needs 2,000 to 3200 calories.  This is your food “allowance.”  If you are trying to lose weight you will want to spend less calories per day.  You can calculate your expected needs using a BMR calculator online (basal metabolic rate, make sure to include your activity level) or you can monitor how many calories you eat to maintain your current weight.  Also keep in mind that although the 2,000 calories a day diet is our national standard, in 2012 the average American consumed 3,900 calories per day.

What is high or low value mean?  “The 5 or 20 Rule”

Less than 5% DV is a low nutrient food…  (i.e. low-cholesterol, low sodium)

20% or more is high in a nutrient ( i.e. high-fat, high-fiber)


Calories = Energy

Keeping track of calories is generally the easiest way to monitor what you are eating.  Foods can be fat free or gluten free and still high in calories.    Anything over 400 calories per serving is a high calorie food.


Fats: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Dietary Fats are not all bad.  Fat is a major source of energy and helps us absorb certain vitamins.  “Good “ fats or unsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts, and plant-based oils, are healthy in moderation and can raise your good cholesterol levels (HDL)

“Bad” fats are saturated fats, found in meat, poulty and dairy, which increase your bad cholesterol levels. (LDL).  Focus on your %DV of saturated fats when reading nutrition labels.  The American Heart Association recommends 7% of your total calories (16g if 2000cal/day.) Remember the 5 and 20 Rule ( 5% is low fat, 20% is high fat and anything in between is moderate).  Look for foods low in saturated fats. Choosing lean and low-fat meat sources can lower your intake.

Trans-fats are the “ugly”.  They are manufactured by turning liquid fats into solids and are usually found in snack foods and pre-packaged foods.  They raise your bad cholesterol LDL levels, while lowering your good cholesterol HDL levels.  There is no desirable % daily value of trans-fats so the less you eat the better!



Saturated fat is a more important factor in determining your body’s cholesterol levels than dietary cholesterol.  Focus on keeping your saturated fat intake low to keep your cholesterol levels down. In terms of dietary cholesterol, less is better.  You do not ever want to get more than 100% of your DV.



According to the CDC, most Americans ingest over 3,400 mg of salt per day, well over the recommended upper limit of 2,300mg.  Most people ingest too much salt not because they are adding table salt to their food but because packaged foods and fast foods contain very high levels of salt (often without tasty particularly salty).  Eating less salt can lower your risk for heart disease and lower your blood pressure. People over age 51, African Americans, and those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should curb their intake to 1,500 mg of sodium a day.  Foods with less than 5% DV are low salt/sodium.


Beware Hidden Sugars

The FDA recommends that women consume a maximum of 44g (6 teaspoons) of sugar per day and men consume a maximum of 36g  (9 teaspoons.) In reality, Americans are currently consuming 22 teaspoons per day! Natural sugars, such as sucrose in fruit and lactose in milk, contain nutrients are part of a balanced diet.   Natural sugars include glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose, maltose, and lactose.   Added sugars are added during the manufacturing process to boost flavor or texture, most often added to fast foods, processed foods, cereals, breads, juices, yogurts and sodas. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar for women and no more than 150 calories a day for men.  The sugars listed on the nutrition label contain both natural and added sugars but make sure to look at the ingredients list to see if there are added sugars.  Added sugars go by many names, often more benign sounding to trick consumers, including concentrated fruit juice, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltrose, crystalline fructose, evaporated cane juice, invert sugar, raw sugar, malt syrup, cane crystals (see full list below).  Skip any product that lists sugar as one of its first 3 ingredients or if sugar in any form is listed more than once.


The Good Stuff…Fiber, Protein, Calcium& Vitamins

Americans often lack dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and potassium in their diets.  High fiber diets (28g/per day) from fruits, vegetables and whole grains, help aid digestion and also lower cholesterol levels. Thirty-fiver percent of daily calories should come from protein, 46 g for women and 56 g for adult men.  Good sources of protein include yogurt, milk, eggs, beans, seafood, white-meat poultry, lean grass-fed beef.  Diets rich in calcium, from fat-free milk, dark-leafy greens, and legumes help build healthy bones and prevent osteoporosis.  Also look for foods that are nutrient rich  (>20% DV) in Vitamin A (sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, cantaloupe), Vitamin C (hot chili peppers,  bell peppers, dark leafy greens, broccoli) and iron (clams, pumpkin seeds, nuts, lentils) to maintain a well balanced diet.


So what exactly am I eating? Read the ingredients list

Ingredients are listed in order of amount.  The first ingredient is the heaviest amount or largest proportion and so on down the list.  You should be able to identify all the ingredients in a food product as foods you know.  Anything that sounds like a chemical or you cannot pronounce is probably just that, something created in a lab, and something you want to avoid putting in your body.  Most common examples to avoid include artificial flavors, artificial coloring (ex red 3, blue 1), artificial sugars, added sugars, potassium benzoate, sodium benzoate, polysorbate 80, potassium sorbate, dextrose, maltodextrin, and corn oil, MSG, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydrozyttoluene (BHT).  The fewer the ingredients the better!

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