How to read and understand a nutrition label

Here's how to break down the wealth of info on all your packaged snacks.

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5 min read
Nutrition Label

What does a nutritional label really tell you?

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The nutrition label on packaged foods can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Sure, it's full of helpful information to inform smart meal choices, but sometimes you just don't want to face the truth about your favorite snacks! Whether you're a serial label-reader or you try to avoid the label at all costs, it's important to at least know the basics. And if you understand which fats are good and bad, how fiber plays into carbohydrates and what added sugar and sugar alcohols mean, you can more easily figure out which packaged foods are a good choice for you! 

When scanning the facts on a nutrition label -- called the "Nutrition Facts" table -- here are a few important things to keep in mind.

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Bold text vs. indented text

Bold text on a nutrition label will give you a top-level overview of the nutritional values, and the indented text beneath that breaks it down further. So "Total Fat" in bold font includes grams of saturated fat and trans fat (which are then each listed on their own indented lines right underneath the bolded one). Similarly, "Total Carbohydrate" includes those from grams of fiber and sugar (which are each listed separately underneath the bold header).

The "% Daily Value"

Nutrition Label

On the right side of the nutrition facts, you'll see "% Daily Value," which is a guide for the day's recommended intake of say, fat or cholesterol (vitamins and minerals get their own little section underneath if you like to see how much iron or calcium you're getting from any given food). 

A common heavy hitter for this "% Daily Value" column is sodium -- many foods, like canned soup or frozen dinners, might have upward of 50% of your day's recommended sodium intake. It's good to be aware of this, especially if you're trying to cut down on salty foods. (But don't forget to look at servings per package too -- the damage could be even worse than it first appears.)

Serving sizes

Seriously, beware of sneaky serving sizes. A packet of Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup might be an obvious quick meal for one, but if you check out the nutrition facts, it notes that a single serving is actually half of the noodle block. Tricky, tricky! Pop Tarts are another one to watch out for -- two pastries in that silvery wrapper, but the serving size is one! 

 In these cases, you need to double everything you see on the label if you want to know the total nutritional content of the package (or triple or quadruple, and so on, depending on how many servings per container are indicated on the packaging), because the amounts shown are only per serving.

Order of ingredients

When looking at the ingredients list, one more basic tip is to remember that they appear in order of greatest to least amount in the food by weight; so if sugar is the first ingredient, that food contains more sugar than any other ingredient.

Breaking down the details

Now that you have a high-level overview of the different information you'll see when reading a nutrition label, let's dig into the finer points of macronutrients like fat, carbs, dietary fiber and sugar.

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By itself, the "Total Fat" will not give the full story of how healthy a food is. The nutrition facts will also show you the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, and in some cases, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. Which of these are good and which are bad?

The bad fats are linked to bad cholesterol (or LDL) and heart disease, and the worst of these is trans fat -- it's so bad that the U.S. banned artificial trans fat from foods as of June 2018. Harvard Health places saturated fat in an "in-between" category, where you should minimize your intake of this type of fat common in red meat, dairy and many processed foods. Swapping these not-so-good fats with unsaturated fat (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) reduces bad cholesterol and helps tip the overall balance in favor of good cholesterol (HDL). Olive oil, avocados and fish are all examples of foods with these good fats. So, if you see a food with a lot of fat but none of it is saturated fat or trans fat, it might not be such a bad choice!

Carbs and fiber

For those watching their blood sugar, carbohydrates can be a pain point -- they're in almost everything. But something to keep in mind when reading nutrition facts is that fiber is part of the carbohydrate count, and, in fact, fiber is a carb that your body does not digest. According to the University of California, this means it does not affect blood sugar. 

Because of that, you can subtract the fiber grams from the carb grams in a food, and you're left with the carbohydrate grams that will impact blood sugar (also known as net carbs). With a snack like this bag of Bada Bean Bada Boom Sea Salt Crunchy Broad Beans, you subtract 5 grams of fiber from 15 grams of carbohydrates to get 10 grams that will contribute to blood sugar levels.

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Sugar is also part of carbs on a nutrition label, and furthermore, it has its own subcategories. One of these, "Added Sugars," will be required on US labels, effective January 2020. Added sugar information will help you understand whether the sugar in your packaged food is naturally-occurring (like in milk or fruit) or added for flavor (whether it comes from corn syrup or stevia). 

 The new nutrition labels will also show the recommended percent daily value for added sugar. Sugar overall will remain percent-daily-value-less; the focus is on limiting added sugar, not the naturally occurring kind. Some foods, like the Special K Nourish Chocolate Coconut Cashew Chewy Nut Bar, are already displaying added sugar on their labels; you can see one bar contains 9 grams of sugar, with 8 of these being added sugars.

homemade granola bar

Occasionally you might see "Sugar Alcohol" listed on a nutrition label. Sugar alcohols are sweeteners derived from plants or fruits and are often used as lower-calorie sugar substitutes. Sorbitol, xylitol and lactitol are examples of sugar alcohols you might see listed in the ingredients section of "sugar-free" or "no sugar added" foods. Halo Top ice cream contains a sugar alcohol called erythritol, and you can see this reflects the sugar alcohol content seen in the nutrition label of the strawberry flavor, for example. While sugar alcohol does not contribute to tooth decay like sugar does, it still has calories, and it has the potential to cause a laxative effect, especially if consumed in excess.

With these tips in mind, reading food labels at the grocery store should be a little less mysterious and a little more insightful. Whether you are better-equipped to make healthy food choices, or you now know how to fit Twinkies into your diet, embrace the knowledge of nutrition labels!

This story was written by Emily Murawski and originally posted at Chowhound.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.