Whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, are full of important vitamins and minerals. These foods provide us with the fiber we need to maintain our energy levels and the antioxidants we need to fight off infection.
However, when buying packaged food products, we have to rely on the Nutrition Facts label to determine how the item will impact our health. These labels are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and they provide information on serving size, ingredient list, and nutrient levels, such as fiber, vitamins, sodium, calories, and sugar.
When trying to maintain a healthy diet, reading and understanding the nutrition facts is essential. But, these labels can often be difficult to understand and we may not know which essential nutrients to look for. To help you choose only the healthiest items for you and your family, we explain what to look for when reading food labels. Plus, we also outline the role some nutrients play in our overall health.
At the top of the nutrition label, the first thing you will notice is the serving size. Above this, you will also see the number of servings in the entire package. These portions are listed first in standard U.S. measurements (cups, tablespoons, etc.) and then in metric units (grams).
The serving size does not necessarily suggest how much of the food you should eat, but it does indicate the amount people typically eat at one time. Looking at the serving size is important because the nutrition facts listed will apply to this portion.
For example, if the label lists “200 calories,” this means that there will be 200 calories per serving. If the serving size is 1 cup and you eat 2 cups, you consumed 400 calories. Therefore, it is important to compare the serving size to what you might actually eat.
Below the serving size, you will find the number of calories per serving. This number is displayed in a large, bold font. Calories help measure the amount of energy you get from each serving of the food.
Your daily calorie intake should be determined by your age, activity level, and body type. However, most nutritionists recommend eating around 2,000 calories per day. Since the overconsumption of calories has been linked to weight gain and obesity, it is important to pay close attention to the calories in each serving of food.
Beneath the calories, you will find a list of key nutrients. The measurements of each nutrient will be listed in grams or milligrams. Each item labeled can impact your health, so you should consider your dietary and nutritional needs when selecting packaged foods.
Below, we summarize what each of these nutrient values means for your diet.
- Total Fat: This is the overall amount of fat per serving. However, the type of fat is also important. There are “good fats,” such as omega-3 fatty acids, and “bad fats,” such as saturated and trans fats. Therefore, it is important to look just below this number to determine the type of fat the item contains.
- Saturated Fat: Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and have a high number of hydrogen atoms. This means that each chain of carbon atoms holds more hydrogen, so these fats are more “saturated.” Saturated fats have been linked to high LDL cholesterol levels (the bad cholesterol), which can increase the risk of artery blocks in the heart and throughout the body. Therefore, it is important to avoid foods with a high saturated fat content.
- Trans Fat: Foods with trans fats should also be avoided. These fats have no known nutritional benefits and are not safe for consumption. Trans fats are made by a hydrogenation process that turns healthy oils into solids so they do not turn rancid. These fats are typically found in margarine and vegetable shortening, although they are now banned in the United States and many other countries.
- Cholesterol: Like saturated fats and trans fats, high cholesterol foods have also been linked to cardiovascular disease. It is recommended that adults consume no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day.
- Sodium: Sodium indicates how much salt content the item has. Since a high sodium diet can increase your risk of coronary heart disease and high blood pressure, the CDC recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.
- Total Carbohydrates: The total carbohydrate listed is often measured in grams. Below this number, you will also see dietary fiber, sugars, and added sugars. These are included because most carbohydrates contain dietary fiber and sugars, which can affect blood sugar levels.
- Dietary Fiber: Dietary fiber, such as those found in whole grains, help you feel full for longer periods of time. Plus, it also aids in digestion. Look for foods with at least 4 grams of fiber per serving. Adults should consume between 25 and 30 grams of dietary fiber per day.
- Total Sugars: Natural sugars develop in fruits and some dairy products. In moderation, these sugars are safe. According to the American Heart Association, women should have no more than 25 grams of sugar a day, and men should have no more than 37.5 grams a day. The total sugar listing will also include refined sugars, such as table sugar and corn syrup.
- Added Sugar: This indicates the amount of sugar added during processing. Refined sugar is often added to fruit drinks to make them sweeter. However, foods with added sugar are often high in calories, so it is best to avoid foods with high levels of added sugar. If the label reads “includes added sugars,” this means that the total amount of sugar listed on the product includes added sugars.
- Protein: Since a lack of protein is not considered a public health concern, products that are intended for those over 4 years of age may not list the amount of protein in the item. However, products marketed as being “high in protein” should list the protein content.
Across from each nutrient, you will notice the Percent Daily Value. This percentage is the daily value for each nutrient in a single serving. It is also based on a 2,000-calorie a day diet. This number is important because it can help determine whether the food has a high nutritional value.
For example, if an item contains 20 percent DV, this means that it makes up 20 percent of the amount of sodium you should have in one day (based on a 2,000-calorie diet). 20 percent is considered high.
- Saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, cholesterol, and add sugar DV percentages should be below 5 percent.
- Dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium, and other vitamin and mineral percentages should be higher, around 20 percent.
Below, we include the FDA’s Daily Value recommendation based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
- Total Fat: Less than 65 grams
- Saturated Fat: Less than 20 grams
- Cholesterol: Less than 300 milligrams
- Sodium: Less than 2,400 milligrams
- Total Carbohydrates: 300 grams
- Dietary Fiber: 28 grams
- Protein: 50 milligrams
- Iron: 18 milligrams
- Calcium: 1300 milligrams
- Magnesium: 420 milligrams
- Potassium: 4700 milligrams
- Vitamin C: 90 milligrams
- Vitamin D: 20 micro milligrams
- Vitamin K: 120 mico milligrams
Vitamins and Minerals
Following the protein listing, you will find the vitamins and minerals contained in the item. The majority of nutrients listed in this section are those that the American diet is typically lacking, such as vitamins C, D, A, B6, and B12, calcium, potassium, iron, folate, and niacin.
A diet rich in these nutrients can help reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure, anemia, and osteoporosis. Be sure to choose items with a higher vitamin and mineral DV percentage. This will help you eat more nutrient-dense foods.
Common Nutrition Claims
Food manufacturers use certain claims to market their products. Below, we explain what each of these claims means and how it might affect the nutritional value of the item.
- Fat-Free or Sugar-Free: Less than a .5 gram of sugar or fat per serving
- Low Calorie: Calorie count is less than 40 per serving
- Calorie Free: Calorie count is less than 5 per serving
- Good Source Of: At least 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value of a particular nutrient
- Excellent Source Of or High In: 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of a particular nutrient
- Reduced: At least 25 percent less of a particular nutrient than other products (typically applies to calories, sodium, fat, or cholesterol)
- Low Sodium: 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving
- Low Cholesterol: 20 milligrams of cholesterol or less and 2 grams of saturated fat or less per serving
Frequently Asked Questions
According to the Dietary Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, our daily diet should include foods from 5 food groups. They are fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. The exact amounts of each that a person needs will depend on their age and gender.
The 5/20 rule is a way for shoppers to quickly identify foods with a high nutritional value. If the percent daily value is listed as 5 percent, that is considered low. If a food’s percent daily value is 20 or above, that is considered high. If there is a nutrient you want to consume less of, such as sodium, you should opt for items with a 5 percent daily value or less. On the other hand, if you want to consume more of a certain nutrient, such as fiber, the daily value percentage should be at least 20.
Nutrition labeling in the United States is widely considered to be a reliable source of information. The Nutrition Facts label is required and regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Foods are frequently tested to ensure that manufacturers are being honest about the ingredients and nutrients in their products.
All of the information listed on the Nutrition Facts label is important—there aren’t just one or two facts you can consider before deciding if a food is healthy or not. However, if you are in a rush, you should always look at the serving size and the percent daily value listings.
Understanding the serving size gives you a better idea of the nutrient count. For example, if the whole package contains 2 servings and you eat all of it, you will need to double the nutrition facts. Percentage daily value can quickly tell you know how much nutrient value something has. Healthy vitamins, minerals, and fiber should be around 20 percent, while fats, cholesterol, and sodium should be 5 percent or less.
Foods with no nutritional value, or “empty calories,” are those primarily made of solid fats and sugars. These items include, but are not limited to, candy, fast food, cookies, cakes, donuts, soda, fruit drinks, certain types of meat, and full-fat dairy products, such as ice cream. That's why it's best to eat these items in moderation and focus on more nutrient-heavy foods.
Good health starts with our diet. We may know that fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy diet, but the nutrition facts panel can help us choose better packaged foods. When we choose items that are high in fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals, we can reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases in the future.
Eating right is also critical for getting a good night’s sleep. Some foods promote sleep more than others, as we discuss in our guide to the best foods for better sleep.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.