How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label

It may be black and white, but the Nutrition Facts label on boxes and bags of food can be far from simple. Many people say the chart confuses them. Still, it’s an important tool to make sure the food you choose for your family is healthy. Keep a few basics in mind to make sure you’re buying and eating smart.

Look at the Serving Size

The serving size is the standard of how much of a food most people eat in a single sitting. For example: “Serving Size: 1 cup (228g).”

Packaged foods and drinks often have more than one serving in the box, bag, or bottle. That’s why you’ll see servings per container listed with the serving size. One serving of whole-wheat crackers might be 12 crackers, but the box may have 20 servings, or 240 crackers total.

This part of the label can help you watch how much you or your kids are eating at once -- your portion size. It can help keep you from eating more than you should, which can lead to unhealthy weight gain.

Check Out the Calories per Serving

Calories are a way of measuring how much energy you get from a serving of food. The label will tell you how many of them you’ll get in one serving.

Kids’ calorie needs change as they grow, and also depend on how tall and active they are. Most 2-year-olds need around 1,000 calories a day. Active 18-year-old girls need as many as 2,400 calories a day, and active 18-year-old boys need 3,200 calories daily (that’s similar to calorie needs for active men and women).

Look at the Daily Values

Underneath the Calories line, you’ll see a list of nutrients. This includes total fat, sodium, protein, and vitamins like A and C. For each of them, you’ll see a % Daily Value (DV). This is the percentage of your daily nutrient needs you get from a single serving of that food, based on an average person who eats a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. (Again, most kids need around 2,000 calories daily.) This can give you a good idea of whether a food is a poor, OK, or good source of a nutrient. A Daily Value of 5% or less is “low” in a nutrient. A Daily Value of 20% or more is “high” in a nutrient.

Continued

It’s good to have foods that are high in:

  • Dietary fiber
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Potassium

But go easy on foods that are high in:

  • Saturated fat
  • Sodium
  • Added sugars

Nutrition labels don’t list Daily Values for three nutrients: protein, trans fats, and sugar. (Though by 2018, food companies will be required to list added sugars and their daily values on the label.) Moderate amounts of protein are healthy. But too much sugar can cause weight gain and other problems, so in general, the lower this number, the better. And no amount of trans fat is good for you or your kids. 

Don’t Forget the Ingredient List

Any food that’s made from more than one ingredient has to list them. This list is separate from the Nutrition Facts chart. It’s important to read it through, because it can give you extra information, like whether a food has an ingredient your child is allergic to.

Ingredients are listed in order of the amount used in a food, with the largest amounts first. It’s smart to steer clear of foods that list sugar (including corn syrup), hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, and salt early in the ingredient list. That’s a sign that the food has more of them than other ingredients, and probably isn’t very healthy.

Ditto for the length of a list: As a rule of thumb, foods that have a shorter ingredients list with names you recognize (rather than long, hard-to-pronounce chemical names) tend to be better for you.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on January 10, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Nielsen: "Fifty-nine percent of Consumers Around the World Indicate Difficulty Understanding Nutritional Labels."

FDA: "How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label."

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label."

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Ask the Expert: Healthy Fats."

American Heart Association: "Understanding Food Nutrition Labels."

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