How to Read Nutrition Labels: Food Facts

Food products come with nutrition labels, but sometimes, there's more than meets the eye. Here's your primer on how to read nutrition labels.

how to read nutrition labels

The US Food & Drug Administration calls for labels that give us a better look at important nutrition facts regarding sodium, fats, serving size, and more.

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Reading nutrition facts labels isn’t that difficult, and indeed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is trying to make the information on those labels even clearer. Still, if you’re trying to make heart-healthy food purchases, it’s important to know what you’re looking for as you scan the backs of cereal boxes, salad dressing bottles, and other products. So here’s your primer on how to read nutrition labels.

First, an important note on label literacy: If you don’t bother to read nutrition facts labels at all, experts say, you may find yourself eating more of exactly the elements—sodium or saturated fat, for example—that you’re trying to limit. So what should you know about those and other key items on the nutrition facts label?

How to Read Nutrition Labels: Serving Size

Serving size is often the start of a confusing or incorrect reading of a nutrition facts label. That’s because all of the information about calories and other nutritional details is based on one serving.

Some serving sizes just “seem right.” A serving of whole-wheat crackers, for example, is usually about 15 crackers. But if you have only seven or eight for a snack, be sure to cut the calories, sodium, and other listings in half from those listed for one full serving.

Some serving sizes may not make sense or be realistic for many people. A 20-ounce bottle of soda, for example, may note that there are 2.5 servings per bottle. But plenty of people treat the whole bottle as one serving.

The FDA is aware of these issues, and as part of a new nutrtion facts labeling requirement, serving sizes will be presented in larger type and in amounts that better reflect how food is consumed.

How to Read Nutrition Labels: Sodium

The maximum recommended daily amount of sodium for most healthy Americans is 1,500 milligrams (mg). People with heart disease or certain heart disease risk factors should aim for no more than 1,000 mg daily. When you count up the amount of sodium you consume, you may be in for a surprise. Most Americans consume about twice the recommended limit.

How to Read Nutrition Labels: Saturated Fat

No more than seven percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fats. So if you consume a diet of 2,000 calories daily, 16 grams of saturated fat should be your limit for an entire day.

How to Read Nutrition Labels: Trans Fat

Trans fats won’t be on nutrition facts labels in the near future, because food manufacturers are taking them out of their products due to health concerns. For now, they’re still present in many foods, so steer clear of items that list trans fats on the label and that include ingredients that have hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.

How to Read Nutrition Labels: Carbohydrates

Carbs get a bit of a bad rap, but the truth is that your body needs carbohydrates for energy. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 suggest that between 45 and 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. For a 2,000-calories-per-day diet, that means 900 to 1,300 calories. Make sure most or all of those carbs are complex carbs from whole grains, beans, and other healthy sources, rather than simple carbs from white bread, white rice, and processed foods.

Aim for 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber per day from food, not supplements.

How to Read Nutrition Labels: Added Sugars

One of the FDA’s other new label changes is the addition of a line about added sugars. These are sugars that don’t occur naturally. The American Heart Association suggests women have no more than 25 grams of added sugars daily and men have no more than 37.5 grams.

Finally… Think Before You Buy

Keep shopping simple. Exercise caution with foods that contain more than five ingredients, especially if you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce those ingredients.
Along with learning how to read nutrition labels, experts commonly advise, avoid the center isles in most grocery stores (where you’ll find all kinds of packaged, canned, and processed foods). Instead, stick to the perimeter, where fresh or frozen produce, fresh meats and fish, low-sodium fresh cheeses, and low-fat dairy products are stocked.

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Jay Roland

Jay Roland has been executive editor of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory since 2017. Previously, he held the same position with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Advisor, since 2007. In … Read More

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