Understanding Nutrition Fact Labels
Let me start by saying that I’m not a big fan of spending time learning to decipher food labels and ingredient lists. Food manufacturers stay one step ahead of us by finding new ways to label the same old ingredients (for example, sugar) so that we don’t recognize it.
This is why I always recommend that the bulk of your diet be from foods that don’t have ingredient lists. Plus, it’s just plain healthier for you to eat real food.
By real food, I mean fruits and veggies and unprepared fresh meats and poultry. It’s a safe bet that you’re not getting unwanted ingredients if you stick to a food in its natural form that has not been processed in any way.
But, there will be times when you’ll eat something that comes in a package. So, understanding nutrition fact labels will help you make better choices. Its the whole knowledge is power thing, right?
Especially since not understanding how this table is used gets some people into trouble. It’s really important to understand that every value in the table is tied to the serving size. There are no predetermined, standardized serving sizes. Manufacturers get to set their own serving size which appears at the top of the table.
How to Read Nutrition Facts Tables
The Nutrition Facts table is on the side of most packaged foods, usually located close to the ingredient listing.
Its purpose is to help you, the consumer to 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?
To that end, here’s my four-step crash course to help you with understanding nutrition fact labels.
Step 1: Serving Size
The absolute most important part of understanding nutrition fact labels is to identify 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.
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.
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 what the FDA believes to be 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.
NOTE: Since children are smaller and have different nutritional needs if a food is intended solely for children, then those foods use a child’s average nutrition needs for the %DV.
The %DV is a guideline, not a rigid rule. Please keep in mind that everyone has their own unique nutritional needs. I can help you to know yours.
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: Not every nutrient has a %DV. You can see it’s missing for things like cholesterol, sugar, and protein. This is because there isn’t an agreed “official” %DV for that nutrient.
Step 3: Middle of the table (e.g. Calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, and protein)
Calories are pretty straightforward. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts has 200 calories.
Fat is bolded for a reason. That 19 g of fat is total fat. That includes the non-bolded items underneath it. Here, 19 g of total fat includes 1.5 g saturated fat, 17.5 g unsaturated fat, and 0 g trans fat. (Yes, unsaturated fats including mono- and poly-unsaturated are not on the label, so you need to do a quick subtraction).
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; those 3 gs 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.
Proteins, like calories, are pretty straightforward 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.
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.
I hope this crash course in understanding nutrition fact labels was helpful.
Do you have questions about it? I’d love to hear from you.
This week’s recipe is more a snack or healthy dessert. We used to have this after dinner at my grandparents’ house instead of sugary desserts. It’s the little things like this that add up to a lifetime of good health. They sure were doing something right, they lived to be 100 years old.
Recipe (walnuts): Delicious and Super-Easy Walnut Snack
8 walnut halves
4 dates, pitted
Make a “date sandwich” by squeezing each date between two walnut halves.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Try with pecans instead.
As a Certified Holistic Health Coach, I’ve taken more than twenty-five years of client work and personal life experience to create a proven system to help you live the vibrant healthy life you desire.
I want you to know…It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way.
- Clarify your vision for a healthier, thinner, and happier you!
- Identify what has gotten in your way in the past (it’s not always what you think)
- Map out the next right steps for you to live the vibrant healthy life you so desire.