Making Sense of the Nutrition Facts Label

Nutrition Facts LabelGrocery shopping can be an overwhelming experience if you are trying to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. As you browse through the hundreds of products lining the shelves, have you ever wondered which products are healthier options? You may have previously looked at the Nutrition Facts Label just to become more confused.


The Nutrition Facts Label is a valuable tool that can be used to compare nutrient content of similar products, help you learn how foods may fit in your diet, and assist in understanding the relationship between certain nutrients and diseases.


The following information is a guide, based on adult nutrient needs, for making sense of food labels in order to make healthy decisions when grocery shopping.

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Serving Size


Always start by looking at the serving size and the number of servings in the package.


How many servings do you plan to eat? If the serving size is 16 crackers and you plan to eat 32 crackers then you will need to multiply the calories, fat, and other nutrients on the food label by 2. The servings per container can help you calculate the nutrients that the entire package will provide. Pay attention to the serving size to help keep portion sizes under control.   




Next, look at the calories, which are listed for one serving.


The number of servings consumed determines the total calories; therefore if you eat 2 servings then you will need to be double the calories listed on the label.


The following is a guide to calories:

  • Low=40 calories
  • Moderate=100 calories 
  • High=400 calories or more

Keep meals within 300-500 calories and snacks less than 150 calories; however, this may vary depending on your specific needs.


Look at the calories from fat. For an example, if the product contains 250 calories per serving and there are 110 calories from fat that means almost half of the calories come from fat.


The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, which was released January 2011, recommends that total fat intake should be 20-35 percent of total calories consumed per day. For an example, if you are consuming an 1800 calorie diet, you are allowed 40-70 grams of fat per day (1800 calories x .20 then divide by 9 since each gram of fat is equal to 9 calories).


Percent (%) Daily Value


When determining if a product is high or low in nutrients look at the Percent Daily Value.


The % Daily Value is based on recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet. Keep in mind that this provides you with a rough idea of a food's nutrient contribution to your diet and that some individuals may require less or more calories. 


A general rule is that a Percent Daily Value of 5 percent or less is considered low and 20 percent or more is high. If you consume more than one serving be sure to adjust the daily values depending on how much you consume.


Trans fat and sugars do not have a daily value percentage listed on the label due to experts inability to define a reference value for daily intake. 


Protein may not always have a % Daily Value listed, but must be provided if there is a claim regarding the amount of protein, such as "high in protein" or if the product is intended for infants and children under 4 years of age. Protein needs vary, however for a general rule the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that 10-35 percent of your daily calories come from protein. For an example, if you are following an 1800 calorie diet and wish to have 20 percent of your total calories come from protein that comes to 90 grams of protein per day (1800 calories x .20 then divide by 4 since every gram of protein contains 4 calories).


Nutrients to Limit


Limit intake of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugar, and sodium.


The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 recommend getting less than 10 percent of daily total calories from saturated fat. For an example, if you were following an 1800 calorie diet, this would equal 20 grams of saturated fat per day (1800 calories x .10 divide by 9 since each gram of fat is equal to 9 calories).


Find products that contain no trans fat or as close to 0 grams as possible.


Limit daily cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams or less.


Replace these fats with healthy fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.


Choose foods with less than 5 grams of sugar per serving to help control caloric intake.


Sodium should be restricted to 2,300 milligrams per day for healthy adults, which is less than a teaspoon of salt per day. Sodium intake should be further reduced to 1,500 mg per day for those 51 years of age and older and those of any age who are African American or have been diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes, or kidney disease. 


You may choose to track carbohydrate intake by looking at the total carbohydrate on the food label. Carbohydrate needs vary, but a general rule is that carbohydrate should make up 45-65 percent of your total daily calories. For an example, if you are following an 1800 calorie diet, you are allowed 202-292 grams of carbohydrate per day (1800 calories x .45 then divide by 4 since each gram of carbohydrate equals 4 calories). You may use the food label to give an idea of how much carbohdyrate an item contains. For an example, one slice of bread contains 15 grams of total carbohydrate. You then can compare that to a frozen meal that contains 60 grams of total carbohydrate. This means that the frozen meal contains carbohydrate equivalent to 4 pieces of bread.


Nutrients to Include


It is important to get adequate amounts of dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, vitamin D, and iron.


Women should aim for at least 25 grams and men 38 grams of fiber per day. Choose foods that contain at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving.


There are Percent Daily Values for vitamins and minerals on the label. Remember that a product with 20 Percent Daily Value or more contributes a high amount of that nutrient to your diet, while a product with 5 Percent Daily Value or less contributes little. It is very important to meet calcium and vitamin D needs each day.


For calcium, recommendations are provided in milligrams. You can convert the Percent Daily Value for calcium to milligrams simply by adding a "0" to the percentage on the label. For an example, a carton of milk states that it provides 30 Percent Daily Value for calcium; therefore it has 300 milligrams. For vitamin D, recommendations are provided in international units. To convert the Percent Daily Value for vitamin D to international units, drop the Percent off the Daily Value and multiply by 4. Remember that these conversion methods are specifically for calcium and vitamin D.




The footnote at the bottom of the label reminds you that the Percent Daily Value is based on a 2000 calorie diet. This statement must be on all food labels. The Percent Daily Values listed at the bottom are based on expert dietary advice on how much of key nutrients you should eat daily, based on either a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. These values may vary depending on your calorie needs. The complete footnote may not be listed on packages if the label is too small. The footnote will always be the same from product to product because it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans and is not based on the specific product.


Ingredient List


Manufacturers must list all ingredients by weight in the ingredient list. This means that the first item listed is the main ingredient. The product listed last is the ingredient used the least in the product.


If you have a food allergy you must look at the ingredients carefully. Common food allergies might include: milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts. 


Keep in mind that natural sugars and added sugars are not separated out on the label; therefore it is important to check the ingredient list to check what the source of sugar actually is. Ingredients ending in "-ose" generally means that some type of sugar is being used, such as "dextrose," "fructose," or "maltose".


Words, such as "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" mean that the product contains unhealthy fats and should be avoided.  Other unhealthy fat sources to limit include: animal fat, lard, hardened fat/oil, egg and egg-yolk solids, cream, butter, whole-milk solids, palm oil, palm kernel oil, vegetable shortening, coconut oil, and cocoa butter. 


Ingredients listed as "organic" or "all-natural" does not necessarily mean it is healthier.  If you find that you can not pronounce many of the ingredients listed, there is a good chance that they do not occur naturally. These ingredients may not be bad for us, but they are not providing benefit to our health. Many processed foods contain chemical additives. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there are chemical additives that should be limited or not consumed at all. For additional information click on the following link: additive safety summary.


Health Claims


On the front panel of food packages you may see a variety of claims. The following are some claims and their definitions. Even though a product may contain a claim it is important to always evaluate the food label.


Label Claim

Required Content per Serving

Calorie Free

Less than 5 calories

Low Calorie

40 calories or less

Light or Lite

1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat. If more than half the calories are from fat, fat content must be reduced 50% or more.

Light Sodium

50% less sodium

Low Sodium

140 milligrams or less

Very Low Sodium

35 milligrams or less

Sodium Free

Less than 5 milligrams of sodium

Low Fat

3 grams of fat or less

Fat Free

Less than ½ gram of fat

Low Cholesterol

20 Milligrams or less cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat

Cholesterol Free

Less than 2 milligrams cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat

High Fiber

5 grams of fiber or more

Approved Health Claims

Food Requirements

Heart Disease

Low in saturated fat and cholesterol. High in fiber from fruits, vegetables and grains. At least 6.25 grams soy protein.


Low in fat; high in dietary fiber or vitamins A or C

High Blood Pressure

Low in sodium. Good source of potassium.


High in calcium or high in vitamin D


If you would like additional guidance on reading food labels schedule an appointment with a Registered Dietitian.