Read Before you Eat: How to Read the new Nutrition Label

The Nutrition Facts table is on the side of most packaged foods. It’s often found close to the ingredient listing.

The purpose of it is to help consumers make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, they should be able to eat better, right?

Whether you like the Nutrition Facts table or not, let’s make sure you get the most out of it, since it’s here to stay!

Here’s my four-step crash course on reading the Nutrition Facts table.

 

Step 1: Serving Size

The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts table is to note the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. So, it's tricky.

For example, I remember getting a salad with the dressing packet. I poured the whole packet on my salad thinking it was one serving. Then, I looked at the label and noticed one packet was TWO servings! So I ate double the amount of calories, carbs, fat and sugar that were listed on the label.

All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.

Let’s use an example - plain, unsalted walnuts from Costco.  

 
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As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30 g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.

FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts).

 

Step 2: % Daily Value

The % Daily Value (%DV) is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. Ideally, you will get 100% DV for each nutrient every day. This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day.

The %DV is a guideline, not a rigid rule.

You don’t need to add all of your %DV up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot.

NOTE: I personally don’t pay attention to the %DV because who knows who developed these guidelines. Oftentimes, the guidelines we’re given end up being incorrect. For example, we used to be told to limit our fat. Now we know that the ‘low fat/non fat’ craze was a major factor in the spike in rates of all diseases. Also, the RDA (recommended daily amount) of Vitamin C is 60mg which is just enough to prevent scurvy, but we really need much much more Vitamin C. I wrote more about that here.

 

Step 3: Middle of the table (e.g. Calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, and protein)

Calories are pretty straight forward. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts has 200 calories. We’ve been told for a long time that we need to be counting calories to maintain, or lose weight. I always advise my clients that calories are NOT the most important part of the nutrition label.

Fat is bolded for a reason. That 19 g of fat (29% DV) is total fat. That includes the non-bolded items underneath it. Here, 19 g of total fat includes 1.5 g saturated fat, (19 g - 1.5 g = 17.5 g) unsaturated fat, and 0 g trans fat.

Cholesterol, sodium, and potassium are all measured in mg. Ideally, aim for around 100% of potassium and sodium each day. It's easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made, restaurant foods, or snacks. Keep an eye on this number if sodium can be a problem for you (e.g. if your doctor mentioned it, if you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, etc.).

Carbohydrate, like fat, is bolded because it is total carbohydrates. It includes the non-bolded items underneath it like fiber, sugar, and starch (not shown). Here, 30 g of walnuts contain 3 g of carbohydrates; that 3 g are all fiber. There is no sugar or starch. And as you can see, 3 g of fiber is 12% of your daily value for fiber.

The ONE thing I always suggest to really pay attention to and count is the Sugar. The RDA of sugar for kids is 11g (keep in mind that ‘kids’ covers a big age range so adjust accordingly), 24g for women and 36g for men. Sugar hides in our food, which I wrote all about here.

Proteins, like calories, are pretty straight forward as well. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts contains 5 g of protein.

 

Step 4: Bottom of the table (e.g. vitamins & minerals)

The vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. The new labels will list potassium, calcium, and iron. Yes, potassium will drop from the middle of the table to the bottom, and both vitamins A & C will become optional.

Manufacturers can add other vitamins and minerals to the bottom of their Nutrition Facts table (this is optional). And you'll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others do.

The issue with the vitamins and minerals in packaged food is that, for the most part, they’re synthetic. We really want to get vitamins and minerals from whole foods because our body doesn’t know what to do with fake vitamins and minerals.

 

Conclusion

I hope this crash course in the Nutrition Facts table was helpful. While you can take it or leave it when it comes to making food decisions, it’s here to stay. And it will change slightly over the next few years.

I wrote another post here that goes into more detail about the new nutrition labels and I get more specific about the calories, sugar, and vitamins sections.

Do you have questions about it? Have you seen the new labels with a %DV for sugar? If so, leave me a comment below.

Peace and Wellness -

Bri

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