How To Read Nutrition Facts Labels

Not sure what's in your food?

Nutrition Facts Labels have your answers.

nutrition facts labels

Nutrition Facts Labels are very helpful. They spell out all the information needed for consumers to make responsible choices about their food. If you are serious about your health and nutrition, you should be looking at the Nutrition Facts of every product that you buy. In order to make sure everyone gets the most out of these labels, I wanted to summarize the key things to look for when filling your grocery cart.

Let's use this example from a package of buckwheat noodles as our guide:

nutrition facts label

1) Serving Size

If you misread this part of the label, you'll end up eating way more than you think. Most packaged food items, especially those that are high in calories, will have multiple serving sizes per container. The Nutrition Facts Label here claims 180 calories, but that's for 1/5 of the package, meaning there are 5 servings of 180 calories for a total of 900 calories in the entire package. This is the first thing you should check.

2) Calories

Although calorie counts aren't super accurate, understanding the ballpark amount of energy in your food is very important for determining how much you should eat. If you are looking to lose weight, your daily calorie intake will need to be lower than the amount of calories you burn. Please note that the calorie number you see on Nutrition Facts Labels is per serving (see above), so don't assume that the number you see reflects the total contents of the product.

3) Fats, Cholesterol & Sodium

As a general rule, you want to consume foods that are low in these categories. With that said:

  • We need an adequate amount of fat in our diets, so fat isn't innately bad, it is simply high in calories (and too many calories can lead to increased body fat, which in turn leads to decreased health). Trans fat is the type of fat you should limit as much as possible, as it is most tightly correlated with health problems.
  • Studies have shown that dietary cholesterol intake has little-to-no effect on the level of blood cholesterol (meaning that "high cholesterol" associated with disease isn't cause by eating cholesterol in the diet). With that said, people with certain pre-existing diseases (such as diabetes) should keep dietary cholesterol low.
  • Sodium intake all depends on health status and activity level. If you are free some disease and lead an active lifestyle, dietary sodium is not much of a concern. If however you are overweight, inactive and have an existing health issue, sodium should be limited in the diet.

4) Percent (%) Daily Value

Daily values can be confusing and misleading, because they are based on a 2000 calorie diet (which is appropriate for some, but too high for others). If you pay attention to serving size and know exactly what your daily caloric intake should be, you can use these numbers as a guide to how much of the product you should actually be consuming per meal. If you aren't aware of how many calories you should be consuming in a day, these values aren't of much use to you. As a general rule though, if a food is over 20% of your daily intake for Fat, Sodium or Carbohydrate, it is probably not a great choice. If it is over 20% for any of the vitamins or minerals however, it has some value (more below).

5) Fibre, Protein, Vitamins & Minerals

Rule of thumb: You want as much of these things as possible.

  • You should be aiming for at least 20g of fibre every day, and over 30g is even better. If you are getting most of your fibre from fresh vegetables (that lack a Nutrition Facts Label), then you're doing even better.
  • Inactive people want to get at least 0.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight daily (100g for a 200lb person) and active people will want to get at least 1g per pound of bodyweight daily (200g for a 200lb person).
  • Vitamins and minerals and your body will function as efficiently as possible.

6) Sugar

This gets its own category because added sugar from processed foods can be extremely detrimental to health. It's totally normal to consume some sugar and the more active you are, the more sugar your body can tolerate, but for the general population the recommendation is to keep sugar as low as possible. High-sugar diets are one of the leading causes of diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer and other chronic disease. If you're watching your health, keep this number as low as you can. Any Nutrition Facts Label with over 20g of sugar per serving should be avoided as often as possible.

Bonus: Ingredients

Also on the back of food packaging (somewhere near the Nutrition Facts Label), you will find a list of ingredients.

As a general rule, the fewer the total ingredients, the better the product; more ingredients tends to mean more processing. Furthermore, there are certain ingredients you should work to minimize

Sugar: Mentioned above, this is often hidden under different names such as: High-fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, malt syrup, sucrose, cane crystals, crystalline fructose, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup solids, malt syrup, etc.

Enriched flours: Otherwise known as Wheat flour or Enriched White flour (if it doesn't say WHOLE wheat, it's not whole wheat). The fibre and nutritious germ (along with vitamins and minerals) have been removed in the refining process, then re-added to try and restore nutritional value.

Artificial food colouring: Developed from petroleum. Many are known carcinogens. Names to avoid include: Caramel colour, FD&C Blue #1, Brilliant Blue FCF, Bright blue, Blue # 2, Ingtotine, Royal Blue, Red Number 3, Erythrosine, FD&C Red No.40, Allura Red AC, Yellow 5 and 6, FD&C Green Number 3, Fast Green, & Sea Green.

**Bonus tip: Be wary of food labels that claim to be healthy and use phrases like: "added vitamins and minerals", "wholesome", "no added sugar", "contains real fruit", "all-natural", "fat-free", "low-carb", "high-protein", etc. Don't let the front of the box tell you what it is; use your brain, read the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredients, and make your own educated decision.

Summary

Nutrition Facts Labels are helpful and easy to use, but be diligent and look at the proper information. To quickly summarize:

  • Check the calories pre serving to determine if the caloric load of the product fits your goals
  • Minimize trans fats and sugars, and if you have a pre-existing health problem, minimize cholesterol and sodium as well
  • Choose products that are high in protein and high in vitamins and minerals
  • Do your best to minimize highly-processed, harmful ingredients

You'll notice that whole foods tend to have no Nutrition Facts Label (fruit, vegetables, meat, etc.) or if they do, that they contain more nutrients and fewer calories than packaged items. If you can fill the majority of your cart with these foods, you'll be doing a great job with your health.

Follow Dain Wallis:

Move Daily Health Coach

Dain Wallis is a Nutrition & Health Coach from Toronto, Canada and the author of Unbreakable Strongman. An expert in nutrition and change psychology, Dain's mandate is to educate his clients while empowering them to make sustainable changes reflective of their individual goals and aspirations. An avid strength athlete, Dain is also a 2-time Canadian Strongman Champion.
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