You’ve probably heard that getting familiar with the facts and figures on the side of your packaged foods is a good idea for your health. In fact, when the current nutrition facts label was first established in 1990, it was intended as a tool to inform Americans about the ingredients and nutrients our foods contain — and to verify health claims those foods might make.

Now, with a makeover to its design (and some of its nutrition information) coming in 2021, it’s a good time to ask some crucial questions about our current nutrition facts label.

Does it actually help Americans make better choices? Do we understand it enough to make good use of it — or do we blow it off as science gobbledygook?

And could focusing on a list of numbers lead us astray from a big-picture concept of health, even fueling eating disorders?

honest and transparent breakdownmost people lack education in how to read them
can help people confirm or refute marketing claims abstract in how it fits into overall diet
helpful for managing health conditionsnot always easy to interpret
helps people make better food choicescan be an issue for people with eating disorders or disordered eating

Here’s a quick dive into the main pros and cons of the nutrition label debate:

Honesty and transparency are important values in many areas of life, and our food is no exception. The nutrition label acts as something of a truth serum for food, telling us exactly what we’re getting.

With government oversight requiring accuracy — and lists of nutrient values down to the milligram — labels offer consumers easy access to information they can count on.

When we get serious about discovering what’s really in our food, we may find it brings enlightening results.

Dietitian Jeanette Kimszal, RDN, often tells her clients to begin taking note of the amount of sugars in common foods.

“I find a lot of clients will come back and tell me they found a lot of sugar in everyday products they were using,” she says.

Simply developing the habit of label reading can set us on a path of renewed awareness and mindfulness about what’s in our food.

While knowing how to interpret nutrition facts can lead to a better diet, a lack of understanding can render the labels useless.

“When I speak to my clients about shopping and label reading, some of them say, ‘I read labels, but I’m not always sure what to look for,’” says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD.

This isn’t surprising, since research shows that consumers find food labels confusing, misleading, or difficult to interpret.

Most of us probably haven’t sat down to an education session on how to use the nutrition facts — and can often focus on elements of the label that end up leading us astray.

One common instance, says dietitian Diane Norwood, MS, RD, CDE, is that “Many people with diabetes go straight to sugars when they need to consider the total carbohydrate.”

Nutrition labels, coming 2021

The coming changes to the label intend to make interpretation a little easier. Updates like a larger, bolded font for calories and more realistic serving sizes (no more itty-bitty 1/2 cup of ice cream) may make label reading a bit more user-friendly.

And a new category of “added sugars” aims to clarify the difference between the sugar that naturally occurs in a food and the kind that’s been added during processing. This information could offer helpful insights for people with health conditions like diabetes, or those who simply want to know more about their food.

Even if we do have a solid understanding of nutrition labels, it’s up to us what we do with our knowledge. (As the aforementioned study showed, motivation is a major factor behind using labels for better health.)

Several other studies have shown, too, that nutrition information on restaurant menus do nothing to prompt diners to choose healthier entrees. If environmental cues like the sight and smell of a juicy burger override our motivation, we’re far less likely to make healthy choices.

The detailed information on labels can back up — or sometimes debunk — health claims made by the product itself.

Perhaps the cereal calling itself “high-protein” really only lives up to that claim when served in addition to 8 ounces of milk. Or maybe those tortilla chips with a “hint” of salt have more sodium than you’d prefer for your own diet.

Taking a look at the nutrition facts can give you the real low-down behind hyped-up sales language.

“The nutrition facts label helps you to know whether the front of the label claims really are true or not,” notes dietitian and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Julie Stefanski, RDN.

Being able to decipher between the two is a really good skill that can help you take ownership of your health.

Unfortunately, the value of the labels also comes down to whether or not we can understand and visualize serving size.

Most people have a hard time picturing what 50 grams of this or that nutrient really looks like or means in the real world — and our real diet.

For this reason, some dietitians direct clients to think instead about more accessible measurements.

“I use visuals in my office to support the label reading, such as measuring cups or by using their own hand for serving sizes,” says Jessica Gust, MS, RDN.

Some also argue that nutrition facts take away from a big-picture approach to health. “The nutrition label is an oversimplified snapshot of nutrients,” says Yafii Lvova, RDN.

This may fuel a too-narrow focus on certain nutrients and values (ignoring others that, though not on the label, are also critical for health). Many health pros prefer to encourage a whole foods, whole diet outlook — and leave the labels behind.

Nutrition facts labels are especially helpful for those who live with health conditions that require diet changes.

Many people are given very specific parameters about the amounts of certain nutrients they can and cannot have.

People with kidney disease who need to monitor their sodium, for example, or people with diabetes counting their carbs can turn to labels to determine whether a certain food can fit in their diet.

Though nutrition labels may seem like simple cut-and-dried food facts, for some, their information carries emotional weight.

People with eating disorders often find that nutrition labels trigger tendencies to obsess about calories, fat, or sugar.

“When examined through the lens of food-preoccupation, as in chronic dieting, disordered eating, or an eating disorder, information can easily be taken out of context,” says Lvova.

If you struggle with disordered eating or have a history of binge dieting, it may be best to stay away from reading labels.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of nutrition labels comes down to education.

One study found that people’s knowledge and motivation were the two key factors in whether reading nutrition labels actually improved their diet. When subjects knew what to look for — and had the drive to make healthy choices — they made better decisions about food.

Some important concepts to remember to help you use nutrition labels for healthy choices include:

  • knowing that your calorie needs may differ from the 2,000 calories-per-day baseline on labels
  • realizing that the nutrient values on labels are listed per serving size — and keeping track of how many servings you’re eating
  • understanding that labels don’t list all nutrients important for good health
  • looking at percentages of daily value instead of grams or milligrams

If you’re a diligent label reader, keep up the good work. With a little education about what to look for, you’re well on your way to making healthy dietary choices.

On the other hand, if you find nutrition facts confusing, perhaps a bit more reading can provide a better understanding! Then again, for those who prefer a more intuitive eating, whole foods approach to diet, nutrition facts labels may not be useful at all.

As with so many other types of information, it’s up to you what you take away — or leave behind — in the black-and-white box on the side of your foods.

Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.