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How To Read A Nutrition Label (From a Registered Dietitian)

In a previous post, we tackled What To Look Out For on Ingredient Lists. Here, we're going to move on to reviewing the nutrition panel, where you find all of the nutrition facts aside from ingredients. This table has a lot of helpful information regarding the nutritional values of foods; but for it to be helpful for you, we have to know how to read it. 

Let’s break it down! 

Nutrition Facts Panel Breakdown with details

1. Serving Information

serving size on nutrition fact panel

The first thing you will notice is the serving size at the top of the panel. It will typically show you the weight, as well as an approximate measurement that you will be more familiar with. (For example, a Pringle’s Chips serving size is 28g, or approximately 16 chips.)

Something to keep in mind is that these serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods, not a specific recommendation of how much you should eat or drink. The serving size may be more or less of what you would normally consume, so be sure to check how many servings per container/package and be mindful of how much you are truly eating in reference to those amounts. 

2. Calories

calories on a nutrition panel

A calorie, at the most basic level, is a unit of measurement. Specifically, 1 calorie is the amount of heat energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1g of water 1 degree celsius. 

So, calories in food are the measure of how much energy you get from a serving of that food. Your body NEEDS energy to survive, move, & thrive; your body needs calories.  To achieve or maintain a healthy body weight, you’ll need to balance the number of calories you eat and drink with the number of calories your body uses. (More on that in the photo below). This is typically where the  2,000 calories a day is used as a general guide for nutrition advice, as most adults average around 2,000 calories of energy needs daily. Of course, needs vary depending on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level, so chatting with a dietitian about your specific energy needs is always helpful.

energy balance graphic; calories in vs calories out

3. nutrients

nutrition facts panel with nutrients

Below the basic information of serving sizes and calories, you will find the values for macronutrients, (carbohydrates, protein, and fats). You will also find values that address far more than just the macronutrients; you’ll find values for things like sugar, added sugar, saturated fat, fiber, vitamins & minerals, etc. which we generally refer to as micronutrients.

The values of the 3 macronutrients are what make up/determine the total calories in a serving. This is one of the most important pieces of fundamental nutrition knowledge, which you can read more about in a fantastic, comprehensive blog post linked here.

Again, while we could do a deep-dive on each of these things, here are some general recommendations to keep in mind when reviewing the nutrition facts of your chosen food: 

Nutrients to get less of: Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars

Americans generally consume too much of these nutrients, and they are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Consuming these in smaller amounts is okay! But we want to be careful to watch our overall intake of them. 

Nutrients to get more of: Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, and Dietary Fiber

These vitamins & minerals are typically under-consumed by Americans, so it can be helpful to focus on obtaining more of these when possible. 

And, while we all know getting our vitamins and minerals in is important, fiber is another value that we should be paying extra attention to! Eating a diet high in dietary fiber not only helps regulate our bowel movements, but helps to lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels, and reduce calorie intake by modulating fullness over time. Again, the benefits of fiber are pretty extensive, so we'll link another article here from Mayo Clinic.

A Note on Sugar and Added Sugar

Sugars naturally present in many nutritious foods, like fruit, milk, and other foods that offer many health-promoting benefits. This “natural” or naturally-occurring sugar is still included in the overall sugar content value, in additiona to the sugar that is added by food manufacturers to sweeten foods. These added sugars are things like table sugar, syrups/honey, sugars from concentrated fruit/vegetable juices.  So remember that sugar is not inherently bad, nor something be avoided entirely. It provides quick energy, but our overall intake should be monitored! 

4. The Percent Daily Value

daily value percentage on nutrition fact label

Also on a nutrition panel, you will find percentage values, or the “Daily Value” for each nutrient in a serving of food. These values are determined by the FDA to promote health and help consumers compare food products. 

To make the most of the values, remember to: check the foods you eat most frequently to see how many of the recommended values you are meeting, make sure the serving size is the same when comparing two or more foods, and use %DV to help you understand nutrient claims like "light,” “low,” and “reduced.”

More often, choose foods that are:

  • Higher in %DV for

    • Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium

  • Lower in %DV for

    • Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars

All in all...

In today's bustling food landscape, understanding nutrition facts is paramount for making informed dietary choices. Nutrition information panels serve as invaluable tools, allowing you to compare the macro- and micronutrient profiles of different food products. By knowing how to read these panels, you can identify foods that align with your nutritional goals and support your overall health and well-being. Whether you're aiming to increase protein intake, reduce sugar consumption, or boost vitamin and mineral levels, reading nutrition labels empowers you to make choices that best suit your individual needs. So, next time you're at the grocery store, take a moment to peruse those nutrition facts—you might just discover the key to unlocking a healthier, happier you!


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