How to Read a Nutrition Label in 5 Simple Steps [United States Nutrition Facts Label]

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Nutrition labels, and specifically the nutrition facts table, can help you compare packaged food and drink products and make the best choices for your nutrition needs. In this video, we will cover the five steps to reading a nutrition facts table, including where to find key information, which information we want to focus on, and what the percentage means on the right side of the table.

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Step 1 - Serving Size

If you’ve looked at the Nutrition Facts table before, which value do you tend to look at first? Lots of people will say calories, but there’s actually a step that goes before this. This brings us to step number one, which is to check the serving size. The serving size is the number at the top of the table.

The serving size does not tell you the amount you should be eating. It is just a standard amount that food companies use. But it’s important because all of the information that follows in the table is based on this amount. So in this example, two thirds cup of this food has 230 calories, 8 grams of fat, 37 grams of carbohydrates, three grams of protein, and so on.

Keep in mind, the serving size listed might be less or more than what you will eat. So if you’re going to eat double the serving size, you’ll have to double all the values in the table. So for example, if the serving size says one cup, but you’re going to eat double that amount, so two cups, you would have to double all of the nutrition values in the table.

So 110 calories becomes 220 calories and so on.

Step 2 - Scan the Nutrients

And this brings us to step two, which is to scan the nutrients found in the table. As we move down the table, you’re going to see calories listed next. Calories act like fuel for your body, similar to how gasoline acts as fuel for a car. So this value tells you how much fuel you get from one serving of this product.

Though calories might be helpful to know about depending on your nutrition goals, We likely want to pay more attention to the information listed below calories, including fat, carbohydrates, protein, cholesterol, sodium, and vitamins and minerals like vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium.

Step 3 - % Daily Value

This brings us to step number three, which is to check out the percent daily value.

You may be wondering what is the percentage that’s listed along the right side of the table. This is the percent daily value or percent dv. This value can tell you if a food is high or low in a specific nutrient. So a good rule of thumb is that:

  • 5 percent or less is considered a little
  • 20 percent or more is considered a lot

Step 4 - Determine Which Nutrients You Want “More” or “Less” of

This brings us to step four. What do you want more or less of? Though every person has unique nutrition goals, in general, unless you’ve been told otherwise by your health care provider, most people will want to choose foods that are higher in fiber, vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and iron. And in general, most people will want to choose foods that are lower in sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats.

Depending on your nutrition goals, you may be looking for more protein as well. Keep in mind, there is no percent daily value for protein because according to the FDA, which is the Food and Drug Administration, most Americans get enough protein in their diet if they’re eating a variety of foods. So it’s not a health concern.

But if you’re looking for more protein, you will have to look at the amount in grams and compare that to your goal amount. Now it might feel a little bit overwhelming to focus on all of these nutrients. So instead pick one or two to focus on based on your nutrition goals. Your dietician can help you decide which nutrients to pay attention to on the nutrition label.

Fiber helps to keep you fuller for longer, it also helps to keep your digestive system working well. 

Vitamin D is essential for bone health and a strong immune system.

Potassium helps the body manage blood pressure and is important for nerve and muscle function. 

Calcium is necessary for healthy bones and teeth. It’s also important for muscles and heart health.

Iron helps move oxygen around your body through the blood. 

Now, sugars can be a little bit confusing. One important update that they’ve recently made to the nutrition facts table is to specifically call out added sugars. Added sugars include sugars that are added during the processing and manufacturing process, such as sucrose or dextrose.

Foods packaged as sweeteners, so things like table sugar, sugars from syrup and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. The sugars that aren’t called out as added sugars on the nutrition facts table are naturally occurring. So what exactly does this mean? Well, to showcase the difference between added sugars and those that are naturally occurring, one medium gala apple has about 18 grams of total sugar, but no sugar has been added to this food.

This sugar is naturally present or naturally occurring. So if a whole apple had a nutrition facts table, it would read zero grams of added sugar versus one can of regular soda has about 25 grams of sugar. All of this sugar has been added to the product. Ultimately, these are the types of sugars that we want to try and limit, the ones that have been added to a product.

Step 5 - Compare Foods Based on Your Nutrition Goals

Lastly, we have step number five, which is to compare foods based on our nutrition goals. Now that we know where to find information and which information we want to focus on, we can use this to compare two foods and decide which one is the better choice for us. Remember, all foods can fit in a healthy diet.

Even if a food is higher in added sugar, salt, or saturated fat, we can enjoy these foods once in a while versus every day.

Let’s run through an example.

This is a nutrition facts table from a box of cereal. Let’s take a look at running through our five steps. Step one, check the serving size. For this box of cereal, the serving size is one and one third cups.

If you make a fist, that’s about the size of one cup. So it’s that plus a little bit extra. Now this leads us to step number two, which is to browse the nutrients. So if we were to have one and a third cups, we will get 150 calories, one and a half grams of total fat, 34 grams of carbohydrates. 2 grams of fiber, 12 grams of added sugars, 2 grams of protein, and so on.

On the right side of the table, you can also see the nutrition facts if you were to eat this cereal with 3 quarter cup of skim milk. Now let’s move on to step number three, which is to look at the percent daily value to determine which nutrients this food has a lot or a little bit of. As a reminder, 5 percent or less is a little, so most people will want to choose foods that are lower in saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium.

And 20 percent or more is considered a lot. Most people will want to choose foods that are higher in fiber, vitamin D, potassium, calcium, and iron. So this food alone, not combined with milk, has 3 percent saturated fat, 9 percent sodium, 24 percent added sugars, and 8 percent fiber, 10 percent vitamin D, 25 percent iron, and 0 percent sodium, potassium.

Remember step number four is to determine which nutrients you are aiming for more or less of depending on your nutrition goals. Let’s say that we are looking to increase fiber and reduce added sugars. So this brings us to step number five, where knowing this information, we can compare the food with another one to choose the best option for us.

So let’s compare this food to steel cut oats, for example. With steel cut oats, for a quarter cup of dry oats, we get 14 percent fiber and 0 percent added sugar. So if I’m looking for an option with less sugar, and more fiber, I’m better off choosing the oats and adding some nutritious inclusions like fresh fruit, nut butter, or seeds.

Recap

So to recap what we’ve learned in this video, the Nutrition Facts Table can be a helpful tool to learn about the nutrition in a specific food or drink. It can also be used to help compare two or more items to determine which one you want to choose. Look at the serving size first. Remember, the serving size is not the recommended amount you should eat or drink.

It is simply a standard serving size. Adjust the nutritional information based on the amount you would typically have. Most people will want to aim for 5 percent or less DV of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats. Most people will want to aim for 20 percent or more DV of fiber, vitamin D, potassium, calcium, and iron.

Remember, calories are not the most important information on the nutrition facts table. And lastly, all foods can fit in a healthy diet. Even if a food is higher in added sugars, salt, or saturated fat, enjoy these foods once in a while versus every day. Thanks for listening. If you found this video helpful, share it with a friend or a colleague.

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