How to read nutritional food labels

By Drew McArthur | Feb 27, 2014
Photo by: Donated photo Drew McArthur

Q: Food labels have always confused me. How can I make sense of all the information?

A: The Nutrition Facts label is the useful tool located on prepackaged food that lists the serving size of the food, information about nutrients in the food, and the food’s ingredients.  The most important fact on the label is the serving size, usually located right under “Nutrition Facts.” The serving size is decided by the manufacturer of the food and may be different from one brand to the other.

This single bit of information determines what the rest of the values mean in the food label. All of the numbers that talk about content and percent daily value are based on one serving. One serving might be the entire package, or it might only a portion of the package; it is in our hands to figure out how much we have eaten.

The first part of the nutrition facts label tells us how many calories are in one serving. If the label says there are 200 calories in one serving and there are two servings per container/package, there would be 400 calories in the entire container/package.

Next is a list of what are called macronutrients. Macronutrients are made up of three categories: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. They are the nutrients that provide you with energy. Since ‘macro’ means large, these three categories usually make up the largest part of our diets since they are needed in the largest amount. They are listed on the label as total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars and protein. Note that saturated fat, trans fat and dietary fiber may not be listed.

Remember that these amounts are based on one serving size.The macronutrients are listed in grams (g) or milligrams (mg). It is recommended that you try to choose foods that are lower in fat and sodium and higher in dietary fiber. The amount of saturated fat and trans fat in the foods you eat should be very low.

Right next to the amount of the nutrient is a ‘percent daily value’ for that nutrient. This is the percentage of that nutrient in the food. These percentages are based on the recommendations for a 2,000-calorie diet. These recommendations are decided by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  If you are aware of the calories you are consuming each day, you can adjust this value to your specific calorie level. If you have questions about how to adjust your daily calorie intake, you should consult your healthcare provider or dietitian.

‘Micronutrients,’ otherwise known as vitamins and minerals, are listed directly below the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, near the bottom of the nutrition facts label. Food manufacturers are required to print labels that show levels of calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C, however other nutrients such as such as thiamin, riboflavin and niacin may be listed. These values are always listed as a ‘percent daily value’ and are based on 2,000-calories. You should try to find foods that have at least 10 percent of one or more of these nutrients.

Below the vitamins and minerals listing, or located to the side of the package, are the ingredients in the food. This list of ingredients is arranged by amount from largest to smallest. For example, regular cola has carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid and caffeine listed as the ingredients. Carbonated water would be the largest part of the beverage and caffeine would be the smallest.

It is important to check the nutrition facts label on all of the foods that you buy to understand how to make healthier choices.

Want to learn more? MedWest Haywood is hosting a series of events in March to help you make better decisions at the grocery store, and to help you cook healthier meals for your family.

Contact Katherine at 452-8883 for more information on these interactive nutrition and wellness events.

Drew McArthur is a clinical nutrition manager at MedWest Haywood.