How To Read A Nutrition Label With Confidence (+ Mistakes To Avoid)

 

Written by: Liz Brown - Jul. 27, 2020

how to read a nutrition label  

Every day, millions of Americans are fooled into making unhealthy food choices simply because of misleading food labels, confusing nutrition facts, and impossible-to-pronounce ingredients. I mean, how is anyone supposed to know what monosodium glutamate, sodium diacetate, and disodium inosinate are and the impact they have on your health? What’s shocking is that these types of ingredients appear in some of our most beloved snack foods, yet, we turn a blind eye…

But, it’s not just the ingredient list that can be problematic in regard to misinterpreting a food label. Oftentimes, it can be as simple as overlooking the serving size, or eating too much (or too little) of certain macronutrient that can have adverse effects on your body and health. Understanding how to read a nutrition label properly will not only help you make more informed food choices, but also help you maintain a healthy lifestyle over the long-term. So, if you’re tired of being tricked by food packaging labels and ready to learn how to read nutrition facts, you’ve come to the right place. 

In this blog, you’ll discover how to read a food label with confidence and the common mistakes people make when reading them. 

A woman in a food store reading a nutrition label on a carton of juice

What’s The Purpose Of A Nutrition Label


The Nutrition Facts label on most packaged foods is required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and intended to inform you, the consumer, with the detailed information about the food’s nutrient content. The FDA requires that manufacturers include the following information on all Nutrition Facts labels [1]:

  • Serving size
  • Servings per container
  • Calories per serving
  • Fat
  • Trans fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Carbohydrate
  • Dietary fiber
  • Total sugar
  • Added sugar
  • Protein
  • Vitamin D
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Percent daily value (%DV)
  • List of ingredients

In 2016, the FDA modified the Nutrition Facts panel to reflect the associations between diet and chronic diseases and to help consumers make more informed food choices. [2

How To Read Nutrition Facts Correctly


There is a lot of information to be interpreted on a food label. So to avoid any confusion, I’m going to break down each section so you’ll never mistake how to read a nutrition label again! In the following Nutrition Facts label example, I’ve highlighted the four main components that I’ll be breaking down into more detail—the serving information, calories, nutrients, and percent daily value.

Sample Label For Frozen Lasagna:

SkinnyFit instructions showing how to read a nutrition label

1. Serving information


Serving information is broken down into two parts: serving size and servings per container. Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods. For example, you’ll notice many serving sizes are displayed in similar units, such as tablespoons, teaspoons, cups, or pieces. Serving size is also available in the metric amount (grams) to measure the serving size by weight. It’s important to remember that the serving size reflects the information on the nutrition label, not a recommendation on what you should eat or drink. Information on the label is most likely based on one serving, but keep in mind that food packages often contain more than one serving. Even common items you’d assume are one serving, like canned tuna fish, contain more than one serving per container. According to our example, there are 4 servings of lasagna in the packaging and each serving is 1 cup or 227 grams.

  • Servings per container—This is the total number of servings of the food item found inside the packaging.
  • Serving size—This is the measurement of food that’s reflected on the rest of the Nutrition Facts label. 

Tip for serving information: This is the first thing you should check. Set one serving aside before digging in so you know what one serving actually is. This can help you refrain from eating too much (because we all know how easy it is to overeat), especially when you’re eating out of the container!

2. Calories

The calories listed on a nutrition label reflect the amount of energy you’ll get from each serving of the food that you eat. This section is important because it adds to your total daily caloric intake, which is directly related to weight management. According to our example, there are 280 calories in one serving of lasagna. But, if you were to eat the entire package of lasagna, you would consume 4 servings total and a whopping 1,120 calories! To achieve or maintain a healthy body weight, you should balance the calories you consume from food and drinks with the calories burned during physical activity. It’s recommended that adults consume approximately 2,000 calories per day but individual needs vary and this recommendation should be simply used as a guide. Consuming too many calories based on your age, gender, and body composition can lead to weight gain, while eating too few calories typically results in weight loss. 

Tip for calories: Counting calories is a simple and straightforward method for weight management–take a closer look at the calorie content before making your food choices. A lower calorie diet can help you maintain a healthy weight. 

3. Nutrients

Nutrition facts

When learning how to read a food label, the nutrient information is very important. There are two types of nutrients: macronutrients (which include carbohydrates, fat, and protein) and micronutrients (which include a variety of vitamins and minerals). It is required by law that all food manufacturers include the following nutrient information on food labels: total fat, trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, total sugar, added sugar, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. 

Nutrients to consume in moderation


There are, however, a few higher-risk nutrients to consume in moderation because they may be associated with adverse health conditions like obesity and heart disease. With that said, it’s best to approach your intake of certain types of fat, sodium, cholesterol, and added sugar with caution. I’ll explain the purpose of the percent daily values (%DV) in the next section in more detail, but when it comes to the %DV of these nutrients, a good rule of thumb is to aim for foods that are 5% or less or replace them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. A %DV of 20% or more of these items is considered high. 

  • Fat—In general, dietary fat nutrients are 9 calories per gram, making them the most calorie-dense macronutrient there is. There are many types of dietary fats including saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, trans fats, and more. The high-risk types of fat that are listed on all Nutrition Facts labels include trans fat and saturated fat.
  • Trans fat—Trans fat is an artificial, man-made type of fat that is known to raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. 
  • Saturated fatSaturated fat is a naturally occurring fatty acid that is commonly found in animal products such as meat and dairy. Like trans fat, saturated fat increases the bad cholesterol levels and decreases the good cholesterol levels in your body. 
  • SodiumSodium is a mineral found in salt. Excessive amounts of sodium in your diet can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that you consume no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day and is moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for adults. [3, 4]
  • Added sugarsYou may be surprised to learn that added sugar wasn’t always required to be displayed on nutrition labels. However, research studies over the last several decades have shown that diets that are high in added sugar are linked to obesity, diabetes, and other adverse health conditions. [5]

What is the difference between Total Sugars and Added Sugar?


Total Sugars on a food label includes the natural sugar that is present in many foods and beverages, such as sugar in milk and fruit, as well as sugar that has been added to the product. Added Sugars can include ingredients like syrups, honey, or sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juice. The amount of Added Sugars on a food label is included in the number of grams of Total Sugars in the product. 

Nutrients to consume more of


Not all nutrients are harmful to your health. In fact, most nutrients are great for you and it’s important to get a good amount of them in your diet! These include micronutrients like dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. These particular nutrients are listed on the food label not because they’re more important than other micronutrients, but because Americans generally do not get enough of the recommended amount in their diets. 

Tip for nutrients: Focus on limiting your consumption of high-risk foods and including more dietary fiber and micronutrients. Similarly, you should aim to consume lean proteins and heart-healthy carbohydrates if you want to maintain a healthy diet. 

4. % Daily Value (%DV)

%Daily Value


According to the FDA, the % Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. The Daily Values are reference amounts (expressed in grams, milligrams, or micrograms) of nutrients to consume or not to exceed each day. [6]

General guide to %DV

  • 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low
  • 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high

Aim to choose foods that are:

  • Higher in %DV for dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium
  • Lower in %DV for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars

Hidden Food Label Secrets To Avoid Being Tricked

Understanding a Food Label Claim

Misleading food label claims


Food label claims can be wildly misleading and can oftentimes trick consumers into believing certain junk foods are actually healthy, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are a variety of food label claims such as health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure/function claims. (These are claims like “low-fat,” “made with organic ingredients,” “cage-free,” etc.) To learn more about these types of misleading claims and what they really mean, be sure to check out The Shocking Truth About What Food Label Claims Really Mean.

Ingredients


Learning how to read a nutrition label also includes being able to interpret the ingredient list. On a product label, the ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts.

The example below is the ingredient list for Coca Cola soda. Carbonated water is the first ingredient listed, meaning that it’s the most abundant ingredient in the product by weight. Similarly, caffeine is the least prominent ingredient. 

Different names for sugar


Speaking of ingredients, there’s one ingredient that’s caused quite the stir over the last several decades. It’s no surprise that sugar is the sneaky culprit contributing to the rising obesity epidemic in America. But, did you know that there are multiple names for sugar hiding in your ingredient list that you’re likely unaware of? Here is a list of common ingredients that are actually different forms of sugar! So, be on the lookout for these ingredients that many manufacturers use to trick you! 

  1. Dextrose
  2. Fructose
  3. Galactose
  4. Glucose
  5. Lactose
  6. Maltose
  7. Sucrose
  8. Beet sugar
  9. Brown sugar
  10. Cane juice crystals
  11. Cane sugar
  12. Castor sugar
  13. Coconut sugar
  14. Confectioner’s sugar (aka, powdered sugar)
  15. Corn syrup solids
  16. Crystalline fructose
  17. Date sugar
  18. Demerara sugar
  19. Dextrin
  20. Diastatic malt
  21. Ethyl maltol
  22. Florida crystals
  23. Golden sugar
  24. Glucose syrup solids
  25. Grape sugar
  26. Icing sugar
  27. Maltodextrin
  28. Muscovado sugar
  29. Panela sugar
  30. Raw sugar
  31. Sugar (granulated or table)
  32. Sucanat
  33. Turbinado sugar
  34. Yellow sugar
  35. Agave Nectar/Syrup
  36. Barley malt
  37. Blackstrap molasses
  38. Brown rice syrup
  39. Buttered sugar/buttercream
  40. Caramel
  41. Carob syrup
  42. Corn syrup
  43. Evaporated cane juice
  44. Fruit juice
  45. Fruit juice concentrate
  46. Golden syrup
  47. High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
  48. Honey
  49. Invert sugar
  50. Malt syrup
  51. Maple syrup
  52. Molasses
  53. Rice syrup
  54. Refiner’s syrup
  55. Sorghum syrup
  56. Treacle 

The Bottom Line


Eating healthier can feel overwhelming, I get it. When the going gets tough (and it always does with dieting), it’s easy to want to throw in the towel and forget about checking the nutrition facts on your food. But, sometimes having a community of people who are all on the same journey to help you through the tough times is all you need to stay on track. Whether it’s offering support and guidance or simply cheering you on, the SkinnyFit Facebook community is a perfect example of what’s possible and what you can accomplish when a group of women have your back! Join over 30,000 women (and counting) who are all reaching their goals together! If you ever second guess how to read a nutrition label in the future, just remember to take it one step at a time! And when in doubt, find foods that don’t have a food label at all—like fresh fruits and vegetables! You can always count on them for a healthy snack option!

 

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