The front part of the packaging doesn’t usually tell you the whole story about a product. Sometimes, we might feel inclined to buy a product because it says “low calorie” or “high in protein”, but those claims aren’t always exactly true, or they come with other values that can significantly tip the scale between healthy and unhealthy.
Nutrition labels can seem confusing, especially if you’re in a hurry at the supermarket and only have time to glance over the products before deciding whether to buy them or not. But understanding nutrition fact labels is easier than you might think!
We’re here to help you read and understand nutrition labels so you can make healthier and better-informed choices next time you go grocery shopping. We’ll explain each section of the nutrition label and tell you which things to keep in mind, so keep reading!
What’s included in a nutrition facts label?
If you grab any food product in your house, chances are that you’ll see the same label on the back of each packaging. This label should read “Nutrition Facts” in bold letters at the top, followed by a bunch of different values under it.
To better understand what these values mean, let’s break the nutrition label into four main sections: serving size, calories, nutrients, and % Daily Value.
Directly underneath the “Nutrition Facts” title, you’ll see the approximate number of servings that the container has followed by the serving size in the respective unit of volume and weight.
For example, a tomato sauce container might have about 7 servings per container and indicate that each serving size is 1/4 cup (61g). The 1/4 cup is the unit of volume, which is the amount of space the serving size occupies, while the 61g represents how much each serving size weighs.
This serving size refers to the typical amount that people eat or drink of this particular food at one time – it is not a recommendation of how much you should have. You should compare your actual portions with the serving size indicated so you can read the label more accurately.
The next section indicates how many calories per serving the product has. This is usually displayed in big bold letters so you can read it more easily when choosing and comparing products at the store.
Now, because “Calories” is displayed in big letters and “Amount per serving” is in smaller letters, you might get confused and believe that’s the total number of calories in the product, but that’s not the case. Always keep in mind: everything on the nutrition facts label applies to just one serving size by default unless otherwise indicated.
On the left side of the label, you can see all the key nutrients that each serving size contains and the specific amount indicated by a unit of weight (typically grams or milligrams). This section will display the amounts of:
- Total fat, which includes saturated fat and trans fat
- Total carbohydrate, which includes dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars
- Vitamin D
These are the required nutrients that a nutrition label should include, even if the amount is 0, but there can also be additional nutrients if it’s relevant to the product.
Percent Daily Value (%DV)
On the right side of the label, next to each nutrient, you can see a percentage. This is the % Daily Value (%DV), which indicates how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a diet of 2,000 calories a day.
In other words, the %DV helps you determine if each product is high or low in the nutrients described on the nutrition label. Most nutrients will show a %DV, but others like trans fat and total sugars won’t because experts have not been able to provide a daily reference value for these nutrients.
When it comes to protein, it depends on the specific product and labeling. If the packaging makes claims that it’s high in protein, or if the product is intended for children 4 years and younger, a %DV for protein must be listed. Otherwise, it can be left empty.
How to choose healthier products
Now that you know how each section works, let’s go over a few general rules to help you read the label and decide if it’s good for you and your goals or if it’s better to choose a different option…
Prioritize healthy nutrients
Among all the required nutrients shown on the nutrient facts label, there are several that you should aim to get more of. These are dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin D, calcium, and iron.
These nutrients are necessary to keep your body healthy and functioning correctly, but people don’t usually eat enough of them, so pay close attention to their %DV to make sure you’re getting sufficient daily doses!
Additionally, even though its %DV is not usually shown on the label, you should also prioritize protein. Proteins are the building blocks of the body, and you need plenty of it to keep all body tissues healthy – especially if you’re on a strength training journey!
Keep not-so-healthy nutrients to a minimum
On the other hand, there are three nutrients that are labeled as nutrients to get less of, and these are sodium, saturated fats, and added sugars since they’re generally associated with adverse health effects.
Added sugars are all artificial sweeteners and additives that do not naturally occur in that product. These sugars do not contribute to your daily needs and might make it difficult to meet your actual dietary needs without a calorie excess.
Sodium and saturated fats, on the other hand, have been linked to heart health problems such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease when consumed in large quantities.
A product claiming to be super healthy might look appealing due to being high in dietary fiber or protein, but if it’s also high in added sugars or saturated fats then it defeats the purpose of being actually healthy. So make sure to compare quantities!
Follow the %DV general rule
You should aim to eat foods that have a higher %DV of the healthy nutrients that we mentioned earlier, and lower in saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this is the general rule for reading %DV values:
- 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low
- 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high
For example, if a single serving size contains 25% DV of sodium, it’s considered a product high in sodium, which is a nutrient that you should eat less of. If you were to eat two servings in one sitting, that would be 50% DV, or half of what you should eat in the entire day.
Remember, serving sizes are a general reference, but they don't necessarily reflect your portion sizes. This takes us to the next point…
Beware of serving sizes
When looking at nutrition labels, don’t just pay attention to the %DV. After all, %DV values will depend on the serving size, and sometimes the serving size is much less than what you will actually eat.
Perhaps your recipe calls for three to four serving sizes, or you’re hungry so you eat twice the serving size. You need to account for all of this when reading the nutrition information because just like 12% DV of dietary fiber can turn into a healthy 24%, 15% DV of added sugars can turn into 30%, or even more!
This also goes for the opposite. If you’re relying on certain foods to help you meet your dietary needs but you’re actually eating less than what the serving size is, you might be eating fewer nutrients than you think. So make sure to account for any missing nutrients!
Compare calories to your daily needs
Last but not least, while the %DV shown on nutrition labels is based on a daily 2,000-calorie diet, this doesn’t necessarily reflect your diet. Everyone has different calorie needs depending on their body type, level of activity, fitness goals, and general health.
If you’re not sure of how many calories you should be consuming daily, you can find out with the Fit With Iulia Macro Calculator by replying to a few simple questions about yourself. The calculator will show you your daily calorie target, as well as how much of each macro you should eat for your body and goals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a calorie guide that you can follow to make meeting your nutrient goals more easily according to your calorie needs. Simply pick the calorie amount that’s closest to your Macro Calculator result and use the recommendations as a general guide!
Don’t be afraid of the nutrition label
Paying attention to what you’re actually buying and consuming will make a huge difference in your healthy eating journey. And this is especially important if you have a fitness goal you’re working towards, whether you’re building muscle, losing weight, or something else!
Need a place to track your daily meals and calorie intake?
Try the Fit With Iulia app! The app offers the Kitchen feature, which is essentially a food journal that you can use to keep track of your daily meals as well as plan your meals for the week by choosing foods from our expansive food library. Simply download the Fit With Iulia app and try our 7-day free trial today!