How to Read a Nutrition Label

You try your best to lead a healthy lifestyle - you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercise, monitor portion sizes, and read nutrition labels before purchasing foods. But nutrition labels can be overwhelming and confusing, especially when the nutrition info on the back of the label seems to conflict with health claims, such as light or natural, that are made on the front of the label. Don’t fall for these sales gimmicks – we’ve broken down each section found on nutrition labels and created tips to help you eliminate the guesswork so that you can compare the facts for yourself.

Serving size. The first items you’ll see listed on nutrition labels are the serving size, and the number of servings per container. Be sure to check the serving size on food items; You may be surprised to find that your favorite “snack size” treat actually contains more than one serving per container, leading you to consume more calories than you think. Fortunately, serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods and make the best choice for you. If you know that you typically consume twice the serving size of a particular food, take that into account when comparing food labels and making a selection. Because while you are doubling the nutrients you consume, you are also doubling the calories and fat.

Calories. Next on the label you’ll find listings for the number of calories as well as how many of those calories come from fat. Many Americans consume more calories and fat than they need while consuming insufficient amounts of key nutrients. Though caloric needs vary from person to person, your calories from fat should be between 20-35% of your daily calorie intake.

Nutrients. The nutrients listed first on nutrition labels are ones that we typically get enough or too much of, and should be limited. They are: fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Identifying these nutrients on food labels can help you to make healthier food choices. Health experts recommend that intake of saturated fat, trans fat (which is found in most processed foods) and cholesterol be as minimal as possible. Lower down on nutrition labels, you’ll find nutrients that are important to consume in sufficient amounts, but which many Americans don’t. They are: dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.

Percent Daily Value (% Daily Value or %DV). The % Daily Value tells you what percentage of the recommended daily intake a food item provides for a particular nutrient. The percentage is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. % Daily Value is useful in helping you determine if you are getting enough of certain nutrients, and can tell you whether a certain food is high or low in particular nutrients. If a food contains 5% or less of the Daily Value, it is considered low in that nutrient. If it contains 20% or more of the Daily Value, it is considered high in that nutrient.

The footnote. Have you ever noticed the asterisk that appears next to % Daily Value on nutrition labels? The asterisk refers to the footnote at the bottom, which tells you that the % Daily Value is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. However, larger nutrition labels will tell you more than that – they will tell you the daily recommended intake for fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates and dietary fiber, based on a 2,000 calorie diet as well as a 2,500 calorie diet. Nutrients that have an upper daily limit – total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium – appear first on the footnote. You should try to consume less than the daily value for these nutrients. Nutrients with a lower limit – total carbohydrates and dietary fiber – indicate that you should try to consume at least the recommended daily value.


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