How to Read Nutrition Labels

According to a 2010 study, only 61.5 % of people use the nutrition facts panel.

A more recent 2013 Gallup poll was a little more promising with 68% report paying at least a fair amount of attention to labels on food packages.

Even fewer people pay attention to the ingredient list (51.6%), the serving size (47.2%), and health claims (43.8%) (source).


Not only that, but it seems that only a certain kind of person who is using these labels. It has consistently been found that women, more educated people (college graduates), and wealthier people (making at least $75,000 per year) are more likely to care about calories. These groups, in general, are also more likely to say they eat a “very healthy” diet and less likely to say they are overweight than those who do not (source).

Not exactly the target demographic for those who actually should be utilizing nutrition labels.

Calorie labels workbut only if people look at them and know what they mean.

The Basics


1. Serving Size

Listed here are the serving size (the amount people typically eat at one time) and the number of servings in the package. Compare your portion size (the amount you actually eat) to the serving size listen on the label. For example, if you typically eat 2 cups of the imaginary sample food shown in the label above, then you are getting two times the calories, fat, and other nutrients listed on the label.

2. Check Calories

Find out how many calories are in a single serving. It is usually a good idea to cut back on calories if you are trying to lose weight and to at least be conscious of how many calories you are eating in a day if you are trying to maintain your weight as well. For the most part, you can ignore the “Calories from Fat” listed alongside – these are already included in the total calories and there is nothing magical about calories from fat versus the other macronutrients (carbohydrates or protein). However, eating too many calories per day, from any source, is linked with overweight and obesity.

3. Nutrients to Limit

In general, as a population we eat too much fat, too much sodium, and too much cholesterol – beyond what current science tells us will help manage or ward off chronic disease. Diets high in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and cholesterol are commonly associated with increased risk of chronic health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and high blood pressure.

4. Nutrients to Get Enough Of

Most of us are not getting enough fiber, calcium, and iron in our diets. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. For example, eating a diet high in fiber promotes healthy bowel function and following a diet rich in fiber, low in saturated fat, and low in cholesterol may reduce your risk of developing heart disease.


5. The Footnote

Let’s be honest, most of us never look at the footnote. In case you were wondering, there is usually the “*” sign after the heading “% Daily Value“. This refers to the footnote at the bottom of the nutrition label. It tells you that Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. You may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day and you may need more or less than 100%DV for the same reason – we are all unique.

A small, inactive female may need to eat 1,200 calories to maintain her weight. A tall, active male may need 3,500 calories to maintain his weight. A teenage female will need more iron and calcium than a middle-aged male. These amounts are also referring to healthy adults, and not necessarily someone who has a disease or condition which requires them to follow specific dietary restriction, such as those with chronic kidney disease who may need to limit their protein intake or someone with high blood pressure who it is recommended limit their sodium intake to 1,500mg per day. Keep all of this in mind when looking at the recommended amounts listed on the label.

6. % DV

Daily Values (DVs) are recommended levels of intakes and are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, although some of the recommendations are the same regardless of the daily calorie goal. If you follow this dietary advice, you will stay within public health experts’ recommended upper and lower limits for the nutrients listed.

However, like most people, you may not know how many calories you eat in a day. You can still use the %DV as a reference guide because it can help you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient (some nutrients do not have an established %DV based on current research).

In general, 5% of less is considered to be low and 20% or more is considered to be high. Aim for more food choices high in the “Nutrients to Get Enough Of” and more foods low in the “Nutrients to Limit”.

The %DV also makes comparison a bit easier. You can compare one product to a similar product. In general, similar products will have similar serving sizes. A good example of how you can use this section is by comparing two breakfast cereals. You may want to choose the cereal with a higher %DV of fiber if all else is equal.

The %DV can also help you make dietary trade-offs throughout the day. You do not have to give up your favorite foods to eat a healthy diet! For example, when a food you like to eat is high in fat, balance it with foods that are low in fat at other times of the day.


Big Changes Ahead

The current label is over 20 years old. It’s time some changes were made.

On May 20, 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to reflect new scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic disease such as obesity and heart disease.


New Design

Much of the label looks similar, however a few changes should be noted:

  • Increased font size for “Calories”, “servings per container” and “serving size” and bolding number of calories and serving size
  • Manufacturers must also state the actual amount, in addition to %DV, of vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium but can voluntarily state the gram amount for other vitamins and minerals

Updated Nutrition Science Information

  • “Added sugars” will be included and differentiated on the label from total sugars – defined as sugars that are either added during processing or are packaged as such (sugars – free and mono- and disaccharides, sugars from syrups and honey, sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100% fruit or vegetable juice of the same type)
  • Vitamins A and C will no longer be required, as most individuals consume enough of these nutrients and deficiencies in the general population are rare. Calcium and iron will continue to be required, as consumers are still falling short. Vitamin D and potassium will be added.
  • “Calorie from Fat” will no longer be used as research shows type of fat is more important than amount
  • Updated DVs for nutrients like sodium, fiber, and vitamin D

Updated Serving Sizes

By law, servings sizes must be based on amounts that people are actually eating, not what they should be eating. The original serving size requirements were published on 1993.

  • For example, the current reference serving size of ice cream is 1/2 cup but is changing to 2/3 cup and the current reference serving of soda is 8 fluid ounces but is changing to 12 fluid ounces

Package size also affects what and how much people eat. With the new regulation, packages between one and two servings must list calories and nutrients for the entire package and be labeled as one serving because people typically consume it in a single sitting.

  • Both a 12 ounce and a 20 ounce bottle will equal one serving, since people typically drink both sizes in one sitting
  • For certain products larger than a single serving but could still be consumed in one or multiple sittings, manufacturers will have to provide a “dual column” to indicate amount of calories and nutrients on both a “per serving” and a “per package” or “per unit” basis

Compliance Dates

Manufacturers will need to use the new label by July 26, 2018. However, manufacturers with less than $10M in annual food sales will have an additional year to comply (2019). Foods imported to the United States will need to meet these requirements as well.

Compliance dates for other recent nutrition initiatives include:

  • June 18, 2018 – products must no longer contain partially hydrogenated oils for uses not otherwise authorized by the FDA
  • The targets for sodium reduction that the FDA is developing are voluntary and so there is no compliance date

The Nutrition Facts Label: Look for It and Use It!

A lack of nutrition labels isn’t the reason why so many are overweight or obese, they are how weight-conscious people stay thin.

The people who need the information most don’t know how to use it.

Do you look at nutrition labels?
What do you think of the redesign?

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