Any time you pick up a jar or container of food, you’re sure to see a complex-looking label on the back. It’s the nutrition label, describing the ingredients and nutritional information for the product, which is required by law to inform consumers. Unfortunately, if you don’t know how to read the label correctly, the provided information will be of little use.
Nutritional labels on food offer helpful information about what you’re eating. Whether you’re on a diet, have food allergies, or are just paying closer attention to what you’re eating, knowing how to read food labels is a must.
Here’s everything you should know about a nutritional label, from top to bottom.
The first thing you’ll see at the top of a nutritional label is the serving information. This tells you what the average serving size is, as well as how many servings are in the container.
Serving sizes vary based on the product. For cooked pasta, it might be one cup, but for sweets, it might be two cookies or pieces of candy. These sizes are loosely based on the average amount people eat of that particular food item. It’s important to pay attention to serving size, because the rest of the nutritional information is almost always based on one serving, not the entire container. So, if you eat two servings in one sitting, you’ll be getting twice the nutrient content and calories listed on the label.
Some packages include nutritional information based on the full container in addition to or instead of a single serving. Each label will state whether its information is based on a serving or the whole container.
Below serving size, you’ll find calorie information. This provides the total calorie count per serving. This section may also show how many calories are from fat, which is important if you’re monitoring your fat intake.
Next, you’ll find a breakdown of the nutrients present in the food. This includes macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). The fats and carbohydrates sections may also list out the types of each, such as saturated fat or fiber and added sugar. Knowing the difference between these types of macronutrients and what they do is important.
Sodium and cholesterol are also usually included alongside fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Micronutrients are listed below the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
The total amount of each nutrient per serving, calculated in grams, is listed next to the nutrient. Next to that, there’s a percentage. This is the Percent Daily Value (%DV) for the nutrient. Percent DV tells you what percentage one serving of that food provides of the recommended daily intake based on the government’s nutritional recommendations. For example, if the %DV for protein is 10 percent, it means one serving makes up 10 percent of the protein you should be eating each day. A low %DV is five percent, and a high % DV is 20 or more. “Low” or “high” could be good or bad, depending on the nutrient and your general dietary choices.
It’s usually recommended you do not exceed 100 percent daily intake of some nutrients, like saturated fats. However, you should aim to reach 100 percent or more of other nutrients, such as vitamin D and fiber.
Percent DV is based on a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet and the average recommended value of each nutrient so if you eat fewer or more calories each day these percentages won’t be correct.
Finally, the nutritional label may contain an ingredients list. All food products containing more than one ingredient are required to have an ingredients list.
Ingredients are listed in descending order based on weight. Usually, the first ingredients listed are the most prevalent. Take a close look at the first few ingredients, since these make up the majority of what you’re eating.
It’s also helpful to know how to recognize the “sneaky” names for things like added sugar, which may appear several times in an ingredients list. There are at least 56 different names for sugar that appear frequently in ingredient lists. Here are a few of the more common ones…barley malt, corn syrup, sucrose, glucose, lactose, fructose, maltose, mannitol, maltodextrin, maple syrup.
Understanding how to read nutritional labels means little if you don’t understand how different macronutrients and micronutrients affect your body. Consult your doctor or a dietician to understand what amount of fats, proteins, carbs, and other nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.