Nutrition labels explained

By Karin Boode, PhD

In last weeks article we established the importance of reading the nutrition labels rather than going by the claim(s) on the packaging to decide which products are good for you. We must ignore the hype on the front of the packaging and read the small print on the label to base our purchasing decision on.

The first thing that we need to take into consideration is the serving size. Even though the FDA has refined the guidelines, this is still a gray area. What you consider a serving and what the manufacturer considers a serving may not be the same. We saw it in last weeks example, where one product used ¾ of a cup as the serving size, whereas the other product used ½ a cup. This makes comparing products difficult.

Another great example is a 20oz bottle of soda. It contains 2.5 servings. Not a very realistic scenario. But by doing so, the manufacturer was able to make the label look more favorable. Always make sure to start out by looking both at the serving size and the total servings per container to make sure you make a good estimate of your own portion size. Once you have established how many of your portions are in the container, you can move on to the rest of the label.

Next are calories and total calories from fat. Calories are energy. If you consume more calories than your body actually needs for energy, it stores it as fat. The result is that you gain weight. If you consume fewer calories than your body needs for energy, it will start using fat from your fat bank and you lose weight. That is why we want to avoid the, so-called, calorie dense products as much as possible.


That brings me to fat, because fat is the most calorie dense source of energy with 9 calories per gram of fat. Pay close attention to the ratio between calories per serving and the portion of that energy that is coming from fat. The bigger the gap between calories per serving and total calories from fat the better.

Thankfully, the label gives us more information than just the calories from fat. It also tells us how much saturated fat and trans fat is in the product. As we discussed several weeks ago in the article about saturated fats we should avoid both saturated fats and trans fats as much as possible. The label will help you do so.

Cholesterol amounts are useful also. Not just because of heart health, but also because it can help you establish how much meat is in a product. For example, I was looking at a Lean Cuisine Chicken Carbonara frozen dinner. The label told me that it has 30 mg of cholesterol. Since 1oz of chicken contains about 24 mg of cholesterol, this means that this Chicken Fettucini dish contains no more than one and a quarter ounces of chicken, whereas the serving size of this dish is 9 oz. The amount of cholesterol in this frozen dinner tells us that about 14% of the dinner is chicken. When you look at the picture on the packaging you might have gotten a completely different impression. Although it is healthier to eat less meat, it is misleading to have 14% chicken in a frozen dinner and have a picture on the packaging that suggests differently.


The other categories speak for themselves. Some, such as sodium, you need to keep as low as possible. Others, such as vitamins and minerals you need to make sure you get enough of. But what is enough? What does it mean to have 100 mg of sodium in a product. Is that a lot or is that ok? The FDA realized this problem, so they came up with ‘% Daily Value‘, which tells you what percentage of the total amount you need on a daily basis is in the product.

Take a look at the red square in the above nutrition label. Nutritients and the amount of each nutrient contained in the product are listed on the left. On the right is a list of percentages. Each of these percentages represents the percentage of the Daily Value for that particular nutrient in 1 serving. For example, the 33 grams of carbohydrates is considered 11% of your total recommended carbohydrates for the day. This may seem straight forward to you, but it is not.

Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet for everyone, regardless of sex, weight, shape or size. For most of us a 2000 calorie diet is too much. I would say for most of us, go out from 1000-1200 calories for women and 1500-1700 calories for men. In other words, women should aim for a total intake throughout the day of 50% of the Daily Value and men should target 75%.


Healthy Habits for nutritious food choices:

  • Establish how your portion size relates to the serving size on the label
  • Choose foods with a low % Daily Value of cholesterol and sodium
  • Limit your calories from fat and avoid saturated fat when possible
  • Choose foods with a high % Daily Value of dietary fiber
  • Make sure you get 100% of your vitamin and mineral needs
karinNutrition labels explained

Comments 4

  1. Lee Hayles

    I enjoy reading this every week and it proves that I was right when I went on my life style change three years ago and have kept it off by eating the right food.

    the best thing is I haven’t been hungry because I don’t eat fatty foods and my diet consists of about 80% fresh veggies and very lean meat with a total 7-9 ozs per day


    1. Post

      Congratulations on making the changes Lee. And by deciding to make the life style changes, you had the best chance of keeping the weight off. Nice job!

  2. Gareth Sitz

    1000-1200 calories is a weight-loss diet, not a maintenance diet. That is definitely not enough nutrition for a highly active female, in my opinion. I agree heartily about reading labels, however.

  3. Pingback: Ingredient statements « Healthy Habits Hotline

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