How to Decode the Nutrition Label

By Dr. Nina Radcliff

Clear and accurate nutrition labeling is an important way to help consumers follow dietary guidelines and make informed decisions on what they consume and choices they make for themselves and their families. As a result, The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 mandated that standardized nutrition information appear on almost all packaged foods.

The standard label includes a plethora of vital information that can help guide us in key understandings. However, several studies have documented consumer confusion and difficulty understanding quantitative information presented on food labels, especially with respect to serving size information and the percentages of recommended daily amounts.

There are a few things to remember when reviewing a nutrition label and here are some insights.

Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: To Understand Nutrition Labels

Serving Size

The nutrient information on the nutrition label is based upon the serving size. It defines the portion. Units are typically described as cups, number of pieces, or grams. And when there is more than one serving in the package, this will be labeled as “Servings per container.”

The serving size allows for a comparison of nutritional information between similar products. However, experts have cited some concerns. Stated serving sizes of many commonly consumed items such as cereal and potato chips are substantially less than what is realistically portioned out by consumers. Additionally, this value can be manipulated to make consumers view items with smaller serving sizes appear healthier than a comparable product with a larger serving size—a concept known as “health framing.”


A calorie is actually a unit of heat energy (like a watt). The macronutrients–carbohydrates, protein, fat—serve as fuel and provide energy for our body. Our body needs fuel to power all of the important functions it carries out (thinking, walking, talking, digestion, fighting off germs, the list goes on). But when we consume more calories than what we burn/use, they will be converted to fat and we gain weight.

When making food choices we want to make sure that the calories also contain nutrition. In other words, they are not empty calories, or what we call “junk food.” We want a good return on our investment.

Total Fat (1 gram of fat = 9 calories)

Total fat accounts for the combination of saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. Underneath this value are saturated fats (not good for our health) and trans fats (which are being phased out of food manufacturing because of the myriad of harms they may cause). Unsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil, corn oil) can help lower bad cholesterol and protect against a number of disease. But be careful because they are still high in calories! The value of unsaturated fats is not always listed but can be calculated by subtracting the other fats from the total fats.


Cholesterol is no longer a nutrient at concern for overconsumption. For years, we have been told to limit our cholesterol intake to less than 300 mg per day (roughly equivalent to two eggs) because it will elevate our blood cholesterol levels and contribute to heart disease. However, The 2015 American Dietary Guidelines state that our blood cholesterol levels are dictated by genetics, not consumption. At this time, the nutrition label still lists the value of cholesterol for the item.

Sodium (1 teaspoon of salt = 2,300 mg of sodium)

This is a nutrient at concern for overconsumption. Current recommendations state that no more than 2,400 mg of sodium daily—and 1,500 mg in certain groups– should be consumed. However, on average, Americans consume 3,400 mg everyday! That is more than double. Additionally, research suggests that one in every ten U.S. deaths is due to a high salt diet! And it’s not just table salt you have to worry about. Many processed and prepared foods and drinks contain sodium. It is important to shake the habit.

Products claiming to be “sodium free” contain less than 5 mg per serving. Reduced sodium products must contain at least 25% less sodium than usual, but can still be high.

Total Carbohydrates (1 g carbohydrates = 4 calories)

There are several sources of carbohydrates: fiber, sugar, and starch. Fiber promotes healthy bowel movements and does not raise blood glucose. Sugar refers to both simple carbohydrates that are naturally occurring and sugars that are added to sweeten foods. The recent 2015 American Dietary Guidelines state we should consume less than 10 percent of our daily calories from added sugars—equivalent to 200 calories or 50 grams of sugar. As a result, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now requiring that food manufacturers declare the number of grams of added sugar to help adhere to this recommendation.

Starch is not listed on the nutrition label but can be calculated by subtracting the other sources from the total carbohydrates. Diabetics should be cautious of starches because it can raise blood sugar levels to a greater extent than other sugars.

Protein (1 g protein = 4 calories)

Approximately 15% of our calories should come from protein.

Vitamins and Minerals

Most Americans do not get enough of these. Look for products that have high values–greater than 20%.


This corresponds to the * after % Daily Value (underneath “Calories from Fat”). These values are the same on all nutrition labels. It includes a 2,000 calorie and 2,500 calorie diet and recommendations for fat, cholesterol, sodium, and carbohydrate intake. Smaller packages may have abbreviated labels.

% Daily Values (%DV)

Based on the Daily Value recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet (see footnote). Provides a quick way to interpret if the food has too much or too little of the nutrient’s daily recommended allowance. A rule of thumb is that 5% is low (desired for fat, sodium, and added sugars) and 20% is high (desired for vitamins, nutrients, and fiber).

All packaged foods come with a food label and understanding what is in the food you eat can help you to make healthier choices. Checking food labels also can make it easier for you to compare the nutrient content of different options. Nutrition labels are an important tool as a healthy diet is vital throughout a lifetime. We all need to pay attention to and understand nutrition labels – they are important steps in managing the choices we make and toward improving our overall diet. Bottom line, reading labels is a crucial action in self-defense we need to make to live healthier lives.

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