Updated: Sep 18
You’d think that they would have taught us this stuff in school right? I mean, if we are going to eat things that have SO many different details (and all of these details can make a BIG difference in one way or another) then perhaps we should have learned this stuff a long time ago!! But no worries, I’ve got you covered; because today we are going to talk about one of the most foundational skills in being educated about eating: How to read a nutrition label!!
Why Nutrition Labels can be so Confusing
If reading a nutrition label was as simple as pinpointing one thing that we needed to look for on every single food package, then this blog post would be a lot shorter than it is! But there are so many considerations – protein, carbs, fat, sodium, ingredients etc. And because there can be more important things to look for in certain foods than others (i.e. the sugar in yogurt vs. the sodium in yogurt) this is why nutrition label reading can be so confusing! If only there were a reference you could pull up on your phone whenever you are at the grocery store 😉 (BOOKMARK THIS PAGE FOR FUTURE REFERENCE!!)
How to Read a Nutrition Label
Alright, enough about the confusion. I am going to make this really simple! I have taken a handful of food labels from around my kitchen and snapped a few pics for us to references! The first one I would like to share with you is a *cheese* food label:
To make label reading easy, think about reading it like any other thing you would read - from top to bottom, the largest sized text to the smallest (which also happens to be from left to right on this label!) The first thing you read after reading the “Nutrition Facts” title in big bold letters is the “serving size” that is right below it. This block of Colby jack cheese from Costco has “32 servings per container”. What this means is that if you were to eat exactly 1 serving of cheese each time, you could do this 32 times before you finish the entire block of cheese. There are many different ways to define what a “serving” of food is, but Kirkland is defining a serving of this specific cheese as a 1-inch square of cheese.
*Tip: if you are trying to practice portion control, try cutting up your block of cheese into 32 1-inch squares and eating 1 or 2 at a time!
So let’s say that you actually do choose to eat just one 1-inch cube of cheese…What exactly is in that? Well, that’s when you can move to the nutrient amounts per serving! Remember, if you choose to eat more than one serving, such as two or three 1-inch cubes, you will need to multiply the number of servings that you eat by each nutrient to get a better idea of the breakdown of what you are eating.
Calories and % Daily Value
The first nutrient on our nutrition facts is the calories per serving. Calories are a unit of energy, which means that the more calories there are in a food, the more potential energy you will be consuming! This cheese has 110 calories per serving, which is a decent amount for a 1-inch cube of food! Just to the right of the servings and calories are your macronutrients (fat, carbs and protein) as well as your micronutrients. To the right of each nutrient you will see a percentage, which is based off of a 2,000 calorie diet. Now, before I go on, let me ask you this: Do you eat exactly 2,000 calories per day? Are you even close to it? Do you even track how many calories you eat every day to know how close or how far away from this random even number you are? The point I am trying to make here is that unless you are in the small percentage of the population that eats 2,000 calories per day, than the percentages that are next to each nutrient really don’t apply to you! The good news is that this is something we can essentially ignore when looking at a food label.
The first macronutrient you will see on a food label after the calories is “fat”. Below the bolded term fat, you will see the different types of fat that are contained in this food. Unfortunately, the fat breakdown that is below the total fat will not always be the same from label to label. This is because the FDA only requires food companies to indicate the amount of “saturated fat” in the description, and not other fats like monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s put it this way: Saturated fats are animal-based fats. If your food product is meat, dairy, eggs or anything else that comes from an animal, there will be some saturated fat in the food! If your food label has monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, these are plant-based fats. These can come from anything from nuts and seeds to avocados and soybeans.
Why they decided to mix sodium and cholesterol RIGHT smack dab in the middle of where the macronutrients are, I don’t know. Cholesterol is a type of animal fat, so it makes sense that it may be directly below the fat breakdown. But to be honest, I most often disregard the cholesterol portion because it is already accounted for in the actual fat breakdown, it just doesn’t say so. Originally, cholesterol was added to the requirements of a food label because of the concern in the 20th century that dietary cholesterol (such as that in eggs) may lead to heart disease. And actually…
Begin rant: Research has shown that very little cholesterol actually gets converted into serum cholesterol in our bodies1,2…and more recent research is showing that our cholesterol lab markers are actually not really that great at indicating risk for heart disease anyway!! So unless you have a diet-related health issue that is related to cholesterol metabolism, do yourself a favor and skip reading the cholesterol line when you’re looking for what is important on the nutrition label!*
Next on our list is sodium. And my goodness, what a controversial mineral to talk about! So many people try to avoid sodium because they believe it will give them high blood pressure (NOT true). And others, such as James DiNicolanto (http://drjamesdinic.com/) who wrote an entire book on why humans NEED salt, believe that we should be increasing our salt intake! As a nutrition professional, I can definitely say that I have seen BOTH situations arise - where on one side, there are people (such as athletes) who avoid salt when they should be strategically increasing their salt intake; and on the other side, those who have high blood pressure/hypertension and are eating massive amounts of fast food, should be reducing their salt intake as a form of therapy to reduce the stress load that they are putting on their heart. Long story short, here is the RDA for sodium:
RDA for Sodium: less than 2,300 mg per day
With our lovely block of cheese we have, we can see that there are only about 170 mg of sodium (salt) in each serving. However, keep in mind that more often than not, we are consuming more than 1 serving of cheese in a sitting! It is not uncommon for me to meet with people who consume 10 times the standard serving amount just in cheese! This turns our measly 170 mg into 1,700 mg of salt, which is just over half of the amount of salt that the FDA recommends in a day.
Ahh carbs. Who doesn’t love to talk about carbs!? And for this particular nutrient we are going to switch gears and change to a different label! Here we have an interesting panty find, an Orgain© protein powder packet.
Skipping down to the “total carbohydrate” section, you can see that this food contains 21 grams of total carbohydrate. But is that a lot? Well, not really. Especially when you take into account the “net carb” count. Net carbs are the carbs that are actually absorbed by the body to be converted into energy. The reason this is important is because “carbs” such as fiber and sugar alcohols essentially go in one end…and out the other. Meaning that they don’t really enter our bloodstream to be used as calories! Therefore, if you are going to spend any of your time looking at the carb count on a food, it is important to do the (very simple) work and calculate the actual amount of “net carbs” that your body is taking in.
How to Calculate Net Carbs
To calculate net carbs, all you need to do is a very simple math equation:
Take the “Total Carbohydrate” number of grams (g)
Subtract the “Dietary Fiber” number of grams (g)
Subtract any sugar alcohols such as “Erythritol”, “Xylitol”, “Sorbitol”, “Mannitol” etc.
Voila! You have your total “net carbs”!
Perhaps one of the most important parts of a food label is the “Sugars” section. New FDA guidelines are now requiring food companies to add to their label how much “Added Sugars” are in their products as well. For reference, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 25 grams of “Added Sugar” per day for women and no more than 36 grams of “Added Sugar” per day for men. This equates to about 100 and 150 calories respectively. Whether or not that is a reasonable amount for YOU really depends on YOUR physical activity, medical history, food preferences, psychological health, genetics and MANY other factors! So take this sugar reference “with a grain of salt” 😉
In 2018 the FDA made a handful of major changes to the requirements of nutrition labels. One of the changes that was made was which “nutrients” were required to be listed below the macronutrients. The nutrients that are now required to be listed on a food label are:
These nutrients (especially vitamin D and potassium) have been shown to be inadequate in many Americans, meaning we are not getting enough of these nutrients!
Last but not least, we have what may be one of the most important parts of a food label – the ingredients!! The ingredient list is so important because it can give us information about what the Nutrition Facts label cannot – additives, chemicals and toxins. On the upside, it can also lend us information on any vitamins or minerals that have been added to fortify a food. The difficult thing about reading an ingredient list is that there are ENDLESS possibilities to what can be on an ingredient list! And let’s be honest, does it really make sense to register for a semester’s worth of college classes just to be able to understand what ingredients like “sodium acid pyrophosphate” and “pyridoxine hydrochloride” actually are?? Trust me, there will always be ingredients on labels that we don’t understand. Some of them (like pyridoxine hydrochloride, which is really just vitamin B6) are actually good for us! But a good rule of thumb for feeling confident about food labels is to stick to mostly foods that have ingredients that are easy to pronounce! Another great rue of thumb is to find ingredient labels with very little ingredients.
Forgive the poor quality of this label, but as you can see, this package of cubed ham contains very little ingredients! All of the ingredients in this label are also relatively easy to pronounce: Pork, water, sea salt, celery extract, and vinegar. That’s it! If you can find foods that have ingredient labels like this one – short, sweet and easy to say – your chances are that you have found a food that is relatively healthier than something that has 25 different ingredients that are difficult to pronounce (because even if it is fortified with vitamins and minerals, it probably started out as something that was not!)
Well my friends, YOU MADE IT! You have successfully read through the nitty gritty details of a food label and I can almost guarantee that the next time you look at a food label, you will feel more confident at navigating just exactly what many things on there mean! The more you read food labels, the more confident you will become at doing it! And even though there will always be things that you may not understand (I am sure that I’ve come across some myself) it is always an opportunity to grow and learn more about your food. Be confident! You got this.
Blesso C., Fernandez M. Dietary Cholesterol, Serum Lipids, and Heart Disease: Are Eggs Working for or Against You? Nutrients; 10(426): 1-12.
Kanter M., et al. Exploring the Factors That Affect Blood Cholesterol and Heart Disease Risk: Is Dietary Cholesterol as Bad for You as History Leads Us to Believe? Adv Nutr;3(1):711-717.
Symons T., Moore M., Wolfe R., Paddon-Jones D. A Moderate Serving of High-Quality Protein Maximally Stimulates Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis in Young and Elderly Subjects. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009;109:1582-1586.