How to Read a Nutrition Label

If you don’t know what to look for, reading a nutrition label can be frustrating and confusing . This post will be a step-by-step look at all of the important parts of a nutrition label. Read on to find out what to look for and what all of the parts and percentages mean.

Young Blonde Woman Reading Nutrition Label

Serving Size & Servings Per Container – Start Here!

Nutrition Label Servings

There is a reason that the serving size and servings per container are listed first: the rest of the label is based on the serving size. All of the information about calories, fat, protein, etc are for one serving of whatever you are looking at. In this case, that is 2/3 of a cup or 55 grams. If you were to eat a full cup, you would actually be getting more than the values listed on the label.

Calories & Calories From Fat

Nutrition Label Calories

 

Here, the total number of calories in a serving is listed as well as the amount of the total that comes from fat.

What is a calorie?

A calorie is just a way of measuring how much energy a food contains.

Let’s say you have a daily calorie budget of 2000 calories. You can use this number to figure out how much to subtract from your daily budget. Counting calories is a good way to stay at your weight, lose weight or even gain weight.

Common Nutrients Panel

Nutrition Label Common Nutrients

 

This section tells you how much of a few important nutrients are in a serving of this peanut butter. In addition to listing the grams of these nutrients, it also lists the “percent daily value” – this only applies to you if your daily budget for calories is 2000. Otherwise, you need to increase or lower the percentage.

Total Fat

This number is just what it sounds like – the total grams of fat per serving in the food. Total fat can be broken down into the types of fat that are in the food. By law, companies are required to list the amount of saturated fat and trans fat but some companies go further and list the unsaturated fats, which can be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.

What is fat?

Fat is a heavily misunderstood portion of our diets. It provides nine calories per gram and it is essential for the body to function properly. Cell walls, many hormones and a large portion of our brains are all made from fat.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is still required by law to be listed on nutrition labels despite mounting evidence that the cholesterol you eat does not affect the cholesterol in your blood. The most recent dietary guidelines by the USDA recommend keeping cholesterol intake below 300 g per day but this guideline will likely be removed in the near future. Unless you are just curious, we recommend that you ignore this section.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is actually a type of fat. All animals produce it because it is essential for cell wall construction. Our body makes all the cholesterol we need to function, so dietary cholesterol is not necessary.

Sodium

It is recommended that younger healthy people restrict sodium intake to 2,300 mg or less per day and people over the age of 51 or with heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease further restrict sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day. It is recommended that African Americans of all ages keep their intake below 1,500 mg per day. Keeping under this limit can be very difficult, especially if you eat a lot of processed foods.

What is sodium?

Sodium is another essential nutrient for the body. Sodium plays roles in the regulation of almost every biological process. Along with potassium, it is crucial for maintaining blood pressure.

Total Carbohydrate

As with the fats, this number tells you the sum total of the different kinds of carbohydrates in a food. By law, it must tell you the amount of fiber and the amount of sugar. Sometimes the fiber will be broken into soluble and insoluble fiber but not that often. Right now, sugar refers to natural and added sugar without distinction.

What is carbohydrate?

Carbohydrate is the portion of a food that is broken down into glucose in the body. It provides 4 calories of energy per gram and is unique because it triggers the release of the pleasure hormone, serotonin when digested. Carbohydrate falls into tow general categories: sugar and fiber. Sugar is the amount of carbohydrate that is immediately available for energy and requires very little digestion. Fiber needs to be broken down before it can be used by the body.

Protein

This section will tell you how many grams of protein per serving are provided by the product. Protein will only have the percent daily value listed if the product has made a claim such as “high in protein” on the label. Otherwise it is not required because the FDA determined that protein intake is not a public health risk for Americans.

What is protein?

Proteins are the building blocks of life. All of our muscles, connective tissues and individual cells are made from protein. Amino acids, which make up proteins, are used for DNA and RNA synthesis.

Vitamins and Minerals Panel

Nutrition Label Vitamins and Minerals

 

There are currently only two vitamins and two minerals that are required to be listed on a basic nutrition label. Those are vitamins A and C and the minerals calcium and iron. Some companies will list many more, but those four are required. Unfortunately, the actual amount of a vitamin or mineral is not required to be on a nutrition label; only the percent of recommend dietary allowance (RDA) for a person eating a 2,000 calorie a day diet.

What are Vitamins and Minerals?

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients because they perform literally thousands of functions in the body and often cannot be synthesized. There is a “just right” amount for these nutrients because it can be dangerous to get too much or not enough. The National Institutes of Medicine make recommendations for 15 vitamins and 19 minerals.

Keep Going 

That’s it for the actual nutrition facts panel but directly beneath this label is where the ingredients are listed. The ingredients are important because they literally tell you what you are eating. By law, they must be listed in order of the amount used in that food.