How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label?

Young man looking at bottles of oil in market, rear view, close-up

The very first step to proper nutrition is making sure you know exactly what you are putting into your body. Choosing the best food for your health can be difficult when someone else is preparing it, but we have the right to know what we are consuming. This is why we have nutrition facts labels, so everyone can make informed decisions about what they are putting into their systems.

Listed below is a breakdown of the key components to a nutrition label, and what they tell you about the nutritional value of the item.

Serving Size: This provides you with a quantity of how much equals one serving, and how many servings are in a package. All the information on the label is based on one serving, so if you eat three servings, you must multiply all those number values by three to find out how much you are actually consuming.

Calories: This gives a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of that food. Eating foods that are packed with nutrients without being too high in calories means it is a nutrient-dense food—and a good choice. You want to get the most nutritional bang for your caloric buck.

We eat food to absorb the nutrients it provides, which make it possible for our bodies to function. Not all nutrients are created equal, however. These are the nutrients you will find listed on a nutrition facts label, in order of appearance:

Fat: Fat should not necessarily be avoided, but it is important to keep it in check. Fat provides essential fatty acids, which are not made by the body and help to control inflammation, blood clotting and brain development. Fat serves as the storage unit for extra calories. There are three types of fat. Unsaturated fat is good for the heart and usually can be found in liquid form at room temperature, like olive oil. The other types are saturated fat and trans fat, which should be monitored more closely.

Saturated Fat is usually found in meat and dairy products. While you are encouraged to consume some saturated fats, high levels have been known to cause heart disease.

Easy: Just avoid trans fats!

Trans Fat is the worst offender and should be avoided at all costs. Trans fats are man-made and have been linked to diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular diseases and other still emerging health risks. There is no benefit to consuming trans-fat. If you see “partially hydrogenated oil” on an ingredients list, the food contains trans-fat—even if the trans-fat % DV (percent of your daily value—see below) says zero.

Cholesterol: Cholesterol is important in controlling your hormones, but too much cholesterol in the blood can damage arteries and cause cardiovascular disease.

Sodium: Sodium regulates blood pressure and blood volume in the body. Healthy adults should limit sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day while those with high blood pressure should keep it to no more than 1,500 mg per day.

Total Carbohydrates: Carbs get a bad rap, but not all are bad for you. Carbs are your body’s No. 1 source of energy! There are two types of carbs: processed and whole-grain. Whole grains contain more fiber and nutrients and will regulate your blood sugar, keeping your energy and appetite levels stable, making them a healthier choice. Processed carbs are burned up quickly, spike your blood sugar and leave you hungry soon after, making them a carb to avoid as much as possible.

While the Total Carbohydrates won’t tell you which can be found in your food, it will tell you how many grams there are per serving. To find out if your food contains whole grains, check the ingredient list. If the first word in the list—the very first word—is whole, you are consuming whole grains. If the first ingredient says enriched or bleached, it is a processed carb, will leave you hungry sooner and offers little nutrition.

Dietary Fiber: Fiber is indigestible, but helps the digestive process run smoothly. Food high in fiber, due to the inability to be digested, also helps you stay fuller, longer.

Sugar: There are two types of sugars: natural sugars, which occur naturally in foods like fruit and dairy, and added sugars, ones that are added to foods to change the taste. Over consumption of sugar is linked to an increased risk for obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and dyslipidemia (high cholesterol, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol and/or high LDL cholesterol). It is recommended that women limit added sugar intake to 24 grams or 6 teaspoons and men 36 grams or 9 teaspoons.

Protein: Protein helps to facilitate muscle repair and growth. It is recommended that adults consume .8 grams of protein for every pound of body weight.

Vitamin A, C, Calcium and Iron: Simply put, these are vitamins and minerals nutrients your body needs to run properly. Vitamins and minerals are found in the foods we eat, and some foods are more dense with vitamins and minerals than others.

Regarding ingredients, the labels will give you a clue if it’s a very elaborate food or what is so natural or processed. We must keep in mind the amount of preservatives, colorings, and flavorings, which are used in its preparation. Its not recommended that highly processed food makes part of your daily diet, because eventually will toll on you.

Good nutrition is key throughout your life!

There’s a huge difference between eating well and eating poorly. Good nutrition can help you feel in better shape and stay strong, in addition to helping reduce the risk of some common diseases such as certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, among others. If you suffer from certain health problems, good nutrition can help to control symptoms and live better.