How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label


Know your ingredients

All ingredients in a food product must be listed in descending order by weight. A quick glance at the first three items on an ingredient list will tell usually you what the product is mostly made up of and help you make healthier choices. For example, if you’re looking at a cereal box and the second ingredient is sugar, then it’s a bad choice! Sugar should be further down the list.

Also be aware that fat, salt and sugar are often identified in the ingredient listing under other names. For example:

Fat – vegetable oil, animal fat, lard, vegetable/animal shortening, coconut oil, butterfat, whole milk solids, solidified coconut oil, tallow

Sugar – sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, dextrose, corn syrup, honey, malt, malted barley, molasses and sorbitol

Salt – rock salt, vegetable salt, baking soda, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), yeast extract

The Nutrition Facts label

The Nutrition Facts label shows the amount of calories, protein, fat, carbohydrate, fiber, sodium and potassium in an average serving of the food as well as the percentage daily value.

Daily values are based on reference 2000 calorie and 2500 calorie diets. These are used to represent an average for healthy people: 2000 calories for healthy women, young children or older adults and 2500 calories for men, pregnant women and teenagers.

At the bottom of the label, the total recommended daily values appear for other nutrients so you can get an idea of the total amounts required.

Things to watch out for

One thing to be aware of when reading nutritional panels is the serving size. The serving size will not always be how much you actually eat or drink. For example, a 16 fl. oz drink will often list the calories, fats, carbs and so on for an 8 fl oz. serving, or even a 6 fl. oz serving – but you are more than likely to drink the whole thing. Make sure you adjust the nutritional counts for the actual serving size you consume.

Percentage daily value can also be misleading. The figures are based on a 2000 calorie-per-day diet, which is often significantly more calories than you need. For calories, fat and carbs, it’s generally better to use the calorie guidelines instead. The percentage daily value guide is still helpful for vitamin and mineral intake.

Another thing to be aware of is that manufacturers calculate nutritional information based on the “net weight” (the minimum legal weight the product must weigh). The actual weight of packaged foods can be up to 50% greater than the stated “net weight”, resulting in many “hidden” calories. This is especially true of packaged cookies, muffins, cakes and other snack foods.

Understanding label babble

Label “babble” can be confusing to people trying to make healthy food choices. The following is a list of common label claims and their actual meanings to help guide you through the maze!


Claim Means What to watch out for
Calorie-free Less than 5 calories per serving The ingredients may be unknown. Ask yourself, what, if any, are the ingredients?
Low-calorie Maximum of 40 calories per serving Don’t use “low-calorie” as an excuse to have larger portions.
Fat-free Less than ½ gram fat per serving Fat-free products (such as soft drinks, fruit juices, bread, pasta and alcoholic drinks) can still be high in calories if they contain large amounts of sugar (or sugar alcohol), or if large amounts are consumed.
Low-fat Must contain no more than 3g total fat per serving, or no more than 1.5g fat in liquid food product. Low-fat products, like fat-free products, can still be high in calories from sugar.
Reduced-fat The food must not contain more than 75 percent of the total fat content of the same quantity of the regular food product or reference food Reduced-fat foods are not necessarily low in fat. For example, reduced-fat milk, cheese, margarine spreads, mayonnaise, sour cream and dairy desserts are still high in fat.
Sugar-free Less than ½ gram sugar per serving. Sugar-free doesn’t mean calorie-free. Also, the product may contain sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners. If this is a problem for you, limit intake.
Low-sodium Less than 140mg of salt per serving Some low-sodium products have added sugar or high fat to make up for lack of flavor.
Low-cholesterol Less than 20mg of cholesterol and 2g of saturated fat per serving This food label can be confusing, as it is often interpreted to mean no-fat or low-fat. Many foods such as oils, vegetable margarines, avocado and nuts are free of cholesterol but remain high in fat.
Reduced 25% less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product Stay aware of serving sizes.
Good source of Provides at least 10% of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving Read the nutrient facts label to get complete information about the product.
High in / Rich In / Excellent Source Of Provides 20% or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving Read the nutritional facts label to get complete information about the product.
High-fiber 5 or more grams of fiber per serving Read the nutritional facts label to get complete information about the product.
Lean (meat, poultry, seafood) 10 or less grams of fat, 4 ½ or less grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per 3 ½ serving. Watch serving sizes – less fat does not mean you can eat more food.
Cooked in vegetable oil Product is cooked in vegetable oil This doesn’t necessarily mean the food is cooked in healthy (polyunsaturated or mono-unsaturated) oil. One of the most common vegetable oils used to fry high-fat snacks and fast foods is palm oil, which is 50 percent saturated fat!
Lite/Light 50% less fat, or 1/3 fewer calories than the regular version. This term is often confusing as manufacturers also use the term “lite” or “light” to refer to sugar, salt, fat or even the food’s color or flavor. For example:

* “Light” olive oil has a blander, mild flavor, but still the same amount of fat and calories as regular olive oil.
* “Light” cheese has less fat and occasionally less salt; however, the fat content can still be high.

Natural Made from natural ingredients. A label may state that the all ingredients are natural, but this does not mean that the product is low in fat or calories. And don’t forget – many naturally-occurring plant substances actually contain toxins that can be detrimental to our health.



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