How to Read Nutrition Labels

Clinical Dietitian
Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 11:50am

Grocery stores can be overwhelming. They’re loud, crowded and filled with endless options. However, the aisles of the supermarket are where healthy eating truly begins. The choices you make when deciding what to put in your cart will impact your body in the days to come. A smart shopper is an efficient shopper. Learn exactly what to look for on nutrition labels and you can get in and out as quickly, and nutritiously, as possible.

While the healthiest foods are typically found on the perimeter of the store (veggies, fruits, etc.), sometimes there’s no avoiding venturing into the inner aisles to purchase packaged food items. This is where knowing how to properly read nutrition labels can come in handy. At a minimum, the 'Nutrition Facts' label must contain the amount of total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugar, protein, vitamin A and C, calcium, and iron in one serving.

Here’s the top five things to look for:

How to Read a Nutrition Label

1. Watch the Serving Size (Blue)

The serving size is the first piece of information listed on the label. It indicates the amount of food the rest of the nutrition label is referring to. Serving sizes are listed in standard measurements, such as cups or pieces. 

Compare your portion size (the amount you actually eat) to the serving size listed on the label. For example, if you’re buying a box of cereal where the serving size is one cup, but you typically fill your bowl to the brim (around three cups), you will have to triple the calories, fat and other nutrients listed on the label. Also keep an eye on serving size when comparing brands. 

2. Control Calories (Red)

This is where you’ll find the amount of calories and calories from fat per each serving of that food (don’t forget to adjust if you eat more than one serving). The American Cancer Society has an online calorie counter tool to help you determine your optimal daily caloric intake to achieve or maintain a healthy weight. It’s also important to keep in mind that spreading calories out over the day is much healthier than eating a large amount of calories at one time.

Calories from fat refers to calories that do not come from carbohydrates or proteins. According to the AICR, it’s recommended  that less than 30 percent of your daily calories come from fat. In the sample nutrition label above, 110 out of 250 total calories means 44% of this food's calories come from fat. Keep in mind this could be balanced out with lower calorie-from-fat foods throughout the day.

3. Limit These Nutrients (Yellow)

Fat, sodium and cholesterol may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and some cancers. Trans fat and saturated fat in particular raise your bad cholesterol levels, which can lead to a variety of health problems. Select foods that are low in these areas. 

4. The Good Nutrients (Green)

Consuming adequate amounts of potassium, fiber, iron, calcium and vitamins A and C may promote good health and reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. Some Americans do not eat enough foods filled with these healthy nutrients, so keep an eye on labels to help you make better choices.

5. The 5/20 Rule (Purple)

The Percent Daily Value (DV) section is helpful to evaluate how a particular food fits into your daily nutrient intake. Percent daily value is usually based on a 2,000 calorie/day diet so you may need to adjust the percentages based on your individual caloric needs. See the footnote section of the label to learn the exact amounts to watch for. 

Always remember the 5/20 rule: 5% or less of bad nutrients and 20% or more of the good ones! 5% DV or less is considered low (aim low for total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium) and 20% DV or more is high (aim high for vitamins, minerals and fiber). 

For more tips, check out the FDA's handy nutrition label guide