Getting Wise on Nutrition Labels: Why You Should Read and Understand Them
In many ways, a trip to the grocery store is where your diet is going to go well or go off the rails. With thousands of packaged foods available it’s vital to be more informed about which ones are better for you and which are best left behind. One of the easiest ways to figure that out is to take a peek at the nutrition facts label located on the back of the package. Americans continue to consume more packaged foods each year, according to recent findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, so it’s increasingly important for shoppers to understand the nutrition lingo on packages.1 And research shows that people who take the time to analyze nutrition labels typically consume higher-quality diets including more whole grains and vegetables which can translate into microbiome and health benefits.2
But you may have noticed that nutrition facts labels on packaged foods look a little different than in the past. That’s because the start of this year was the deadline for all food and beverage companies to make changes to the nutrition facts panel on their packages.3 The changes, which were called for by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) based on new nutrition research findings and feedback from health professionals and consumers, represent the first major overhaul of the label in more than two decades and include some much-needed updates.4 The new and improved nutrition facts label makes it easier for you to recognize what is in the products you buy.
Here’s a rundown of every line on the overhauled nutrition facts label so you can better decode what’s in the stuff that you’re putting in your body.5
Located directly under the “Nutrition Facts” title you’ll see the servings per container and the serving size that the nutrition information for the product is based on. For instance, this could state something along the lines of 8 servings per container. Serving size 2/3 cup (55 g). (1)
If you are keeping tabs on your overall calorie intake for various reasons including body weight management you certainly need to pay attention to the serving information on the nutrition facts panel. Serving sizes are now based on the amount of food people will typically consume. After all, whoever just ate 1/4 cup of granola or 1/3 cup of ice cream? The FDA says this more accurately reflects what the average American consumes today. Food producers have been guilty of posting unrealistically lower serving sizes to make their nutrition numbers look better.
The serving size, however, is not necessarily an indication of how much you should eat. Your actual serving size should be based on your individual needs as determined by a personalized nutrition plan. Straying from the posted serving size will require a recalculation of the calories and nutrients you are taking in – scale up or down.
Another label update: The serving size font is larger and in bold so it’s harder to miss the portions contained in a particular food or drink.
For foods that might be consumed in one sitting — such as a bag of chips or popcorn — the new label features dual column labels that provide calorie and nutrition information for both one serving and for the whole package.
All the nutrition numbers below on the nutrition facts panel are based on the serving size.
The number of calories enumerated tells you how much energy (calories) you’ll be deriving from the indicated serving size for the food or drink. On the old label, calories were listed in plain text, making them easier to overlook when quickly scanning the back of a package.On the new version, the calories in each designated serving size are listed in larger and bolder text making them stand out. (2)
Again, factor in your actual serving size for a true calorie count if it differs from what the label suggests. People will need varying amounts of daily calories based on several factors including training volume, sex and body size. And, remember, there is a lot more to good nutrition than counting calories. A package of almonds will state a higher calorie count than a package of refined crackers but one is more nutrient-dense. Still, calories in and calories out matter when it comes to maintaining healthy body weight and a favorable microbiome.
% Daily Value (DV)
DVs help consumers figure out how much of a particular nutrient a serving of food contains relative to the recommended daily intake. In other words, it lets you quickly see whether a food or beverage is a good source of macronutrients and certain vitamins and minerals.A 15 percent DV for fiber means one serving of that food provides 15 percent of the fiber many people should consume in a day.The quick rule: five percent DV or less is a little, and 20 percent DV or more is high.You can use DVs to compare similar food and drink products to help you make better choices based on what you want more of (i.e. fiber, potassium) and what you may want less of in a product (i.e. saturated fat, sodium).
FYI, this percentage is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. So if you require more or fewer calories than 2,000 the DV for the items listed on the panel will be a bit off for you. Personal nutritional needs vary. The DVs for certain nutrients have changed, so the labels have been updated accordingly.
Total Fat (3)
Here, you’ll see how much total fat, saturated fat and trans fat are in the product. Since fat is so calorie-dense, the higher the number the greater the overall calories will be. The FDA’s ban of trans fats went into effect on June 18, 2018, so it’s much more common now to see 0 grams listed beside trans fats on the nutrition label.6
While it can be tempting to fixate on the total grams of fat, not all fats are created equal. Generally, you want to eat more unsaturated (mono and poly) fats and less saturated fat and very little if any trans fat. Since monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat levels are not listed on the nutrition facts panel to estimate how much you are getting you can subtract the total grams of fat minus the grams of fat from saturated and trans. The DV for saturated fat is set at 20 grams a day. So if a product has 5 grams of saturated fat it will have 25% of the DV.
As a general rule, the more active you are the more calories from fat you can get away with.
This is the first thing listed on the label after the fat numbers. The DV of dietary cholesterol is no more than 300 milligrams a day. But if you are healthy and free of heart disease or diabetes, fussing about the cholesterol numbers in a product is not particularly necessary. For many people, saturated fat and trans fat intake, and overall dietary patterns, have a bigger impact on our blood cholesterol numbers than dietary cholesterol.7 The Dietary Guidelines for Americans no longer set a hard limit on cholesterol intake.8 Still, it’s probably wise not to include too many products in your shopping cart that approach the 100% DV for cholesterol.
Next comes sodium, most often included in products in the form of sodium chloride (aka salt). It’s a good idea to compare products and select those that list fewer milligrams (mg) of sodium in a serving size, ideally 20% or less of DV per serving. Although there’s some debate over how much sodium you should get, major health organizations including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend that adults aim to limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day, the amount in less than 3/4 teaspoon of salt.9 10 (Note: Our bodies require only about 500 mg daily of sodium to function properly.) This is to reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease in society. Just keep in mind that the DV for sodium on the nutrition facts panel is based on an upper limit of 2,300 mg, not 1,500 mg.
If you are regularly sweating buckets through workouts you are most likely going to have a higher sodium allowance than a sedentary person and eating products with a higher DV of sodium after training is certainly less detrimental.
This number represents the sum of starch, sugar and fiber in a serving size. While sugar and fiber must be listed under carbohydrates, food manufacturers aren’t obligated to mention starch. You can get a good idea of the starch in a product by subtracting total carbs by the sum of dietary fiber and total sugars.
The DV for dietary fiber is 28g, which is 100% DV. The total amount of fiber listed on the nutrition facts panel will be the sum of naturally occurring fibers and any added by manufacturers during processing. We should not expect that all packaged foods will list a presence of dietary fiber, which includes meat, but for items like loaves of bread and cereals, it’s a smart move to compare and drop those that list more grams of fiber into your shopping cart. A higher fiber diet is a surefire way to support your microbiome, the colony of microorganisms in your body that can benefit the health of the host, that’s you. So if one brand of bread lists 1 gram of fiber in a single slice serving and another has 3 grams, the latter might be what you want to make your lunch sandwich with.
The total grams of sugar listed on a label includes both that which occurs naturally in the food or drink such as lactose in dairy and fructose in fruit, and what is added by the manufacturer. No DV has been established for total sugars because no agreed upon recommendation has been made for the total amount to eat in a day.
One significant change on the updated label: It’s now required for products that contain added sugars to list the amount of total sugar that is made up of added sugar on the label. That’s important information you now have privy to as most research suggests that it’s the added sugars in our diet that play a bigger role in health outcomes than the sugars naturally occurring in foods. Before, it was a Sisyphean effort to know how much added sugar was in a food or drink.
By paying attention to the “Includes g Added Sugar” (4) on the nutrition facts panel you may be surprised just how much of the sweet stuff is added to some of your favorite foods including flavored yogurts and breakfast cereals. Again, having this information available to you makes it easier to choose better products. Keep in mind that so-called “natural sugars” like honey and pure maple syrup are included in the added sugars calculation.
There is no DV for this macro, but dietary guidelines state that adults require 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. So if a product states that it contains 10 grams of protein, this would be roughly 16% of the daily need for protein for someone who weighs 77 kg (170 pounds). However, it’s widely accepted that most people, especially those who are active, would benefit by consuming at least 1.2 grams for each kilo of body weight. So it’s helpful to get what you need by seeking out some products that list higher protein numbers. But not all products are meant to contain protein. A jar of pasta sauce or bag of frozen berries will naturally be protein-light.
Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, Potassium
The amount of vitamins A and C have been removed from the updated nutrition facts label because deficiencies in these vitamins are rare in the U.S. (Food companies can still list vitamins A and C on their nutrition labels if they choose.) Instead, the FDA has called out vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium as these are nutrients of concern in the American diet. Ergo, it can be a good idea to keep an eye out for products that have a higher DV of these nutrients. But don’t overlook the whole package. Just because something has 25% of the DV of calcium doesn’t necessarily make it a nutritional standout if it’s also high in added sugars or saturated fat.
Remember that there are numerous other nutrients like magnesium and zinc that are not found on the label but are most certainly an essential part of a healthy diet–as well as the multitudes of other nutrients that your body may need for optimal health. Finding out precisely what you need in the way of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, and enzymes will ensure that you get the right nutrition for your unique biology. Eating a whole foods-based diet with a large variety of foods will make it easier to reach your requirements for the micronutrients listed on the label.
1 Juul, F. et al. (2022). [Ultra processed food consumption statistics]. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Available from academic.oup.com.
2 Christoph, M.J. et al. (2018). [Information on Nutrition Facts panels and their use]. Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Available from jandonline.org.
3 [Nutrition Facts label changes]. (updated 3-7-2022). U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Available from fda.gov.
4 [New Nutrition Facts label info]. (updated 4-13-2022). U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Available from fda.gov.
5 [Using the Nutrition Facts label]. (updated 2-5-2022) U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Available from fda.gov.
6 [Determination on partially hydrogenated oils (trans fat)]. (updated 5-18-2018). U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Available from fda.gov.
7 Carson, J.A.S. et al. (2019). [Report on cholesterol and cardiovascular risks]. Circulation. Available from ahajournals.org.
8 [Dietary guidelines from U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services]. (9th Edition, Dec. 2020). Available from dietaryguidelines.gov.
9 [Information on sodium and potassium intake values and chronic disease]. (2019). National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine. Available from nationalacademies.org.
10 [Information on daily sodium intake]. (n.d.). American Heart Association, heart.org.