The Nutrition Facts label was created to give us, the consumer, insight into what’s in our foods, from how much sodium and fiber is in a box of cereal to how many servings are in a carton of milk.
Knowing this information can help you track macronutrients, ensure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet, and can even help in the management of certain chronic conditions.
When it comes to nutrition — everything from portion size to how much added sugar you should have in your diet — it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider who can support you in assessing your needs.
While many of my clients have some knowledge about reading nutrition labels, there are some who are still unclear about certain aspects of them.
So, whether you’re unsure how to read the Nutrition Facts label or want to understand why it’s useful in making the best nutrition decisions when purchasing food, here are three dietitian-approved tips to the most common questions about nutrition labels.
1. How many servings is that?
It’s easy to get confused between the serving size, servings per container, and portion size of a food. To get you started, here’s a quick rundown:
- Serving size is the size or portion of the product that equates to the amount of nutrients listed. All the information provided in the Nutrition Facts label is based upon the serving size listed.
- Serving per container is the total amount of servings per container.
- Portion size isn’t found on the Nutrition Facts label. It’s different for everyone based on their unique health goals and needs, like if they have a medical condition. Moreover, the recommended portion size for each person may not be the same as the serving size listed on the package, particularly if you’re managing a condition like diabetes.
Once you’ve identified the food item’s serving size, located under the Nutrition Facts header, it’s time to consider what this means for the label as a whole.
Let’s use a bag of pasta as an example.
If the serving size says 1 cup of pasta, the nutrition information below the serving size (fats, carbohydrates, protein, sugars, fiber) only apply to that 1 cup of pasta.
That said, serving sizes can be adjusted to meet specific health and weight goals. For example, if you’re an endurance athlete or wanting to gain weight, you may need to increase your portion size. This means you’ll also increase serving size.
You might, instead, want to up your portion size to two servings (2 cups) rather than 1 cup. This means the nutrition info provided, per serving, would also be doubled.
2. Look for the fiber
Most of us understand that fiber is an important part of our diet. But how many Americans are actually consuming enough fiber on a daily basis? As it happens, not
The recommended daily fiber intake depends on age, sex, and calorie intake. General guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences recommends the following daily fiber intakes:
If under 50 years old:
- women: 25 grams
- men: 38 grams
If over 50:
- women: 21 grams
- men: 30 grams
Pay attention to the grams of fiber per serving on a Nutrition Facts label. Aim for foods that have a higher fiber amount, at least 5 grams per serving.
The Nutrition Facts label is designed to calculate the percentage of all nutrients in the product, including dietary fiber, based on the Daily Values percent (DV%). These percentages are calculated on the basis that a person eats a standard 2,000 calories per day.
It’s important to remember that 2,000 calories per day is more of a guideline. Everyone’s dietary requirements are different.
When you look at the percentages of any of the nutrients on a label, anything that’s 5 percent or less is considered low. Anything 20 percent or more is considered high.
Fiber is one of those nutrients on the label that should ideally be in the higher range. In other words, look for foods with a fiber DV of around 20 percent per serving.
3. Know your sugars
There’s still a lot of discussion around the issue of added sugar as it pertains to health. It can, however, be agreed upon that in general, a person’s daily total added sugar intake should be low.
Before delving into what an ideal added sugar intake is for a day, let’s first talk about the difference between total sugars and added sugars:
- Total sugars are the total amount of sugars found in a product, both naturally occurring (like sugars in fruit and milk) and added.
- Added sugars simply refer to the amount of sugar that’s been added during the processing of the food product.
Added sugars can include:
- high-fructose corn syrup
- table sugar
- maple syrup
- concentrated vegetable or fruit juices
- brown rice syrup
Now onto how much.
The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 24 grams of added sugar per day and men consume no more than 36 grams. In other words, this means:
- for women: 6 teaspoons of sugar, or 100 calories
- for men: 9 teaspoons of sugar, or 150 calories
That said, the
As is the case with most issues regarding nutrition, recommendations do vary based on the person and their needs.
While it’s important to keep an eye on your daily added sugar intake, the reasons for doing so may differ from person to person. For some, it might be to maintain oral health. For others, it might be out of a need to manage or lower the risk of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Knowing how to read labels can help you get the nutrients you need
Being your own health and label-reading detective adds another tool to help you take control of your own health and well-being.
From understanding how a serving size affects the entire label to learning what the DV% means, using this knowledge can indicate whether you’re fueling your body with enough of the nutrients it needs.
McKel Hill, MS, RD, is the founder of Nutrition Stripped, a healthy living website dedicated to optimizing the well-being of women all over the globe through recipes, nutrition advice, fitness, and more. Her cookbook, “Nutrition Stripped,” was a national best-seller, and she’s been featured in Fitness Magazine and Women’s Health Magazine.