The nutrition facts label is a great tool when grocery shopping (especially if comparison shopping), but it won’t do you much good if you don’t know how to read it! The good news is, it’s super simple. We’ll go over where to find information on the label and how to use it to make informed decisions.
What is the Nutrition Facts Label?
You’ve seen these before. The tall, narrow label on the back or side of food packages with numbers galore. Well, it’s not just there for decoration! It means something!
The FDA (that’s the Food and Drug Administration) requires that packaged food displays this label on all foods that are packaged in one location but sold in another. There are certain items that must be listed on the label, too, like serving size, number of servings, nutrient quantities, and daily values. We’ll look at each of these and where they’re located.
Not everything needs a label, though. Think about the produce section of your grocery store – there aren’t labels stamped on pieces of fruit, or even on the cute little sign that says what that fruit is! Some items that don’t require a nutrition facts label include those prepared by small businesses, foods that are prepared and sold in the same location (like a local bakery or a restaurant), foods that have no significant nutritional value (like coffee or spices), and fresh produce.
The nutrition facts label represents the information for just one serving. Most food packages contain multiple servings. The FDA has established reference sizes for certain products in order to make it easy for consumers to compare a serving of item 1 to a serving of item 2. For example, the reference serving size of all beverages is 1 cup – 8 fluid ounces. Serving size and the number of servings are identified at the top of the label. Serving size may be expressed by weight (28 g/1 oz), by volume (1/2 C), or even by unit (1 pastry). A kitchen scale can help to ensure your serving size is accurate, if measuring by weight. Servings per container indicates how many servings are inside the package you’re holding. This might be obvious, like the number of granola bars in a box, or not-so-obvious, like a box of dried pasta.
Remember, everything else on the label just represents one serving. Measuring out one serving will ensure you’re not miscounting calories or nutrients! You might be shocked to learn that your favorite packaged snack actually has two servings in one small package (like Pop Tarts! I felt so betrayed…) Compare the serving size with how much you actually eat, and adjust the calories and nutrients accordingly, or measure out one or two servings and save yourself the math!
Certain nutrients are required on a nutrition facts label, while others are optional. Plus, the required nutrients must be presented in two ways – first, in grams (or milligrams), and next, as a percentage. We’ll get to the percent daily value (%DV) in a second. For now, let’s go over the nutrients! (Of course, you’re an expert on all of these from my Nutrition in a Nutshell page, right!? Right!!) (By the way I’m totally kidding. That’s a ton of information and you can totally reference it as needed. I still need to for those pesky vitamins! Do check it out, though, if you haven’t already!)
- Calories and calories from fat are listed just below serving sizes.
- Total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat are required. Polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat are voluntary.
- Total carbohydrates (which includes starch, sugar, and fiber)
- Dietary fiber and sugars are listed below carbs. Remember, these are already included in the total carbohydrates, so you don’t need to add them – it just helps you to break down which carbs are in the item. More fiber and fewer sugars are better, but some items are naturally sugary, like juice. The new Nutrition Facts Label will require added sugars to be listed, but are not currently required by law.
- Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Iron, and Calcium are all listed as a percentage only. They’re usually found in smaller print just below the macronutrients.
There is a little note I’d like to add, and I think here’s a good spot for it. The FDA allows for a 20% margin of error in nutrition facts labels. It’s perfectly okay for companies to say that a food contains 80 calories, but it actually has 100 calories. Or, that it has 20 grams of protein when it really only has 15. In my opinion, that’s WAY too big of a margin of error, but what are you going to do…Just keep in mind, these things do more good than anything. I just thought you guys should know that the possibility that the label has error is totally real.
Percent Daily Value (%DV)
For most of the nutrients listed above, a percent daily value is required. This may help you to choose items that are low in sodium or fat or high in fiber. Rather than memorizing the recommended amount for each nutrient and doing the math for how the amount in a serving compared to the recommended number, the nutrition facts label does the work for you!
These percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which is a “ballpark” figure. Everyone’s caloric needs are different. If you’re a petite lady, you may only need 1,600 calories. If you’re an athlete, maybe 2,400. To determine how many calories you need, I’d recommend referring to my post on calories, and using this calculator as a reference point. 🙂 You’ll then need to adjust your %DV based on your calorie needs, if you’re interested in the percent of your personal daily value.
So, for example, the recommended daily value of Iron is 18mg for women. This is the reference point the nutrition facts label will use. If a food contains 6mg of iron, it will list the %DV as 33% (probably rounded to 35%).
Some nutrients don’t require a percent daily value. That’s because no one can truly agree on what a good recommendation is!
So, what are percent daily values good for? That’s a whole lot of math, especially if you’re not at the 2,000 calorie level. Hey, I totally agree! Well, it’s a good way to evaluate if the macaroni and cheese you’re holding is high in fat and low in fiber (it probably is). It’s a good “at a glance” reference point. To truly track all of those numbers would be very tedious, especially if you’re just starting out.
Everything below the nutrients
Beneath the nutrients are a whole lot of words. The first little blurb will remind you that the %DV is based on a 2,000 calorie diet – but you already knew that! Next, you’ll find some recommendations for total fat, saturated fat, and a few other things – the reference points from which the %DV were calculated. Finally, a reminder for how many calories are in each gram of carbs, protein, and fiber are listed. That’s the reference point from which the total calories were calculated.
Really, you’ll be looking at the servings, calories, and nutrients.
The Ingredient List
The ingredient list is sometimes located with the nutrition facts label, so I’ll include it here. It may be found somewhere else on the packaging, but usually not very far from the NF label! There isn’t a whole lot to say about the ingredient list – it’s pretty self-explanatory. Still, I wanted to just touch on it and the most important thing about it! Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, which means the first thing listed is the most prominent ingredient in the food. As you get more familiar with ingredients, the names by which sugar disguises itself, and making healthy choices, you’ll be well-versed in checking not only the nutrition facts label, but also the ingredient list! If sugar is listed in the first few ingredients, it’s probably not a great choice.
The ingredient list is mainly how I choose my breads. I don’t buy anything that uses “Enriched White Flour”, because I know it’s not a whole grain. I’ll get into that a bit more when I cover whole grains. 🙂
This is what people are talking about when they say “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!” There are all sorts of chemicals – good and bad – that go into packaged foods. Sugar and preservatives go by many, many names, and are generally additives that you want to limit it. Sticking with whole foods is your best choice!
Put it to use!
All right, so you know pretty much how to navigate the nutrition facts label, and even a little bit about the ingredient list. But, how can this help you choose the best foods to buy when grocery shopping?
Easy. Comparison shop! If Shane and I are buying something new, we always snag two different brands or versions of that item, flip ’em to the nutrition facts label, and compare. It’s kind of like a fun little game for us, to make grocery shopping more bearable. Hold the boxes side-by-side and run down the nutrients, or just look at ones you’re watching. Which box has more fiber? Which has less sugar? Which is loaded with sodium, or has more protein? Some may be better in one aspect, but worse in another.
You can also compare ingredient lists. Is one significantly longer than the other, with a bunch of weird chemical names you can’t pronounce?
Once you’ve made great choices at the store, you’re not done with the nutrition facts label. It’ll serve as a great tool for controlling your diet at home. If you’re counting calories or watching your sodium intake, use the label to keep track of these things.
Modern technology makes diet planning super easy, too. Websites and apps like My Fitness Pal make it easy to keep track of everything. On the app, you can scan the box and it will import and count up the nutrition facts label for you. Or, do a search! This is helpful for those items like fresh produce that don’t have labels, too.
Sure, you can keep track on pen and paper, but why waste time and effort when your computer or phone can do it for you?
Do you comparison shop using the nutrition facts label, or use it to keep track of your daily needs? What about the ingredients list? Let me know in the comments! 🙂