Reading a nutrition label can be confusing and overwhelming if you are not too sure what to look for. But don’t worry, practice makes perfect and as soon as you get a basic understanding, it will all be downhill from there.
I’m always saying that the more you know about nutrition and exercise, the easier and more fluid the integration will be in your everyday life. It’s important to know how to read a nutrition label as it allows you to make better eating decisions. You will be able to tell just how many calories you are consuming, and if that food has the micronutrients and macronutrients that your body needs. For an overview on micro and macronutrients, click here.
*For a quick, visual printout, this pic is one of my favorite explanations on how to read a nutrition label, click here.
A nutrition label can be found on most food packages; all processed foods are required to have nutrition labels. The only items that are not required to have them are unmodified produce, unprocessed meats, and most alcohol.
Some labels may look slightly different in shape, but should contain the same information, and say ‘Nutrition Facts’ in large bold letters. The two labels below are an example of this:
Let’s take the red nutrition label above and begin looking at it from top to bottom. The label’s information starts out large and general, and is broken down more and more:
1. Serving size/Servings per container -> 2. Calories -> 3. Macronutrients & Breakdown -> 4. Micronutrients -> 5. Ingredient List.
The first piece of information to look at will be the serving size and servings per container.
1. Serving size can be very deceiving; sometimes the labels are vague and only indicate a weight in grams which can be difficult to gauge just how many calories you are consuming. Sodas and juices often contain multiple servings per bottle – so you may be consuming more than you think. If the package contains serving size and servings per container, you can determine how many pieces are in the container by multiplying the two numbers together. In this case, 5 crackers X 28 servings = 140 crackers in the box.
2. Next, we look at the Calories. This is the amount of calories per serving. If you consume 10 crackers, this means that you have eaten 2 servings. To calculate how many calories you have eaten, you must multiply the calories indicated on the package by the servings you ate – in this case, 80 calories x 2 servings = 160 calories consumed. To find out how many calories are in the entire box, multiply the calories per serving by the number of servings. For this product, that would be 80 calories x 28 servings = 2,240 calories in the package.
3. The macronutrient breakdown above allows you to see what the calories in the food are made up of; Fats, Carbohydrates, Protein, as well as sodium and cholesterol (as some individuals are required to limit these nutrients per their doctor’s orders). Bold items are nutrient categories, and the un-bold items below them are subcategories that indicate how many grams in the category come from that type of nutrient. For example, Total Fat(4g) is the category, and Saturated Fat(1g) is the subcategory – this means that 1g of the total 4g of fat come from saturated fat.
Just like the calorie portion, the macronutrient breakdown above is per serving. If you have more than one serving, you will need to multiply these grams/daily value % by the servings consumed.
The % Daily Value, on the right side column, is based on a 2000 calorie diet. This means that if you are aiming to consume 2000 calories per day, this will allow you to calculate if you have gone over the recommended percentages by adding up what you have eaten over the course of the day. It also allows you to see if the food is unusually high in a specific category.
According to the FDA, the following should be limited:
Saturated Fat: Large quantities of saturated fat are linked to coronary heart disease, and colon cancer.
Trans-Fat: Any quantity of trans-fat is linked to obesity and cancer.
Sugar: Generally, sugar is devoid of micronutrients and high in calories. It is linked to weight gain.
Salt: High salt intake can increase blood pressure and cause water retention.
4. Below the Macronutrient information, we find the Micronutrient information. This contains all the vitamins and minerals that are in the package. Some packages will contain more than the 4 above micronutrients (Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron), but these are the most common for highly processed foods. Aim for foods high in micronutrients and lower number of ingredients, these tend to be the best for nourishing the body.
Below the micronutrients, you will often find the recommended daily nutrient intake based on 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets. The % Daily Value is calculated by taking the macronutrients per serving, and dividing them by the total recommended. So, based on the 2,000 calorie column, for total fat, we take 4g/65g = 6%. Based on the 2,500 calorie column for total fat, we take 4g/80g = 5%.
5. Last is the list of ingredients that make up the food. The ingredients are listed in order by most to least. In this case, the product is mostly made up of enriched flour and partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and the least ingredient is malted barley flour.
If you would like a list of foods/ingredients you should consume more of, and which you should avoid, see my section on ‘what foods should I eat?’ Click Here.