Understanding the Nutrition Facts Label and Ingredients List on Food Packages
Trying to eat healthily can seem overwhelming. Busy schedules make getting a fresh meal on the table seem impossible. Conflicting nutrition messages—eat meat/don’t eat meat, carbs are good/carbs are bad—only add to the confusion and overwhelm.
The goal is to eat (mostly) whole foods. Whole foods are any foods that are minimally processed and close to their natural state. Some examples include lean meats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Technically speaking, most food is processed—meats are packaged into different cuts, nuts are shelled, and legumes are harvested and dried. When we refer to whole foods, we typically mean one-ingredient foods.
Processed foods like whole grain bread, nut butters, condiments, canned tomatoes, and dairy products can also be part of a healthy diet. They’re convenient and add extra flavor and depth to a dish.
Finding the healthiest processed food options is easier than you think. Everything you need to know is on the Nutrition Facts Label and Ingredients List
What is a Nutrition Facts Label?
Figure 1- https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label
The Nutrition Facts Label is basically a FAQ for packaged food. It gives you the basic information about a product:
Number of servings per container
Calories per serving
Fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and protein per serving
Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium per serving
% Daily Value
This information comes in handy for tracking your macros—fat, carbs, and protein—if you follow a keto, diabetic, or another type of nutrition plan.
Nutrition Facts can help you manage the amount of fat, sodium, and sugar you consume and keep you on track to getting enough daily fiber and key vitamins and minerals.
Let’s go through each part of the Nutrition Facts label to understand what it all means.
Servings Per Container
Pretty straightforward: This represents the number of servings in the container.
Serving Size and Calories Per Serving
The serving size is what’s considered a standard serving of a particular type of food. For instance, a standard serving of ice cream is considered 2/3 cups (sorry, it’s not the entire pint). A standard serving of cooked pasta is 1 cup. Now compare that to what you normally eat. Nuff said.
There’s also a two-column variation of the Nutrition Facts label. One column shows the per serving info and the other column shows the info for the entire package.
Figure 2- https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label
You’ll often find the two-column label on products like soft drinks and snack foods that contain more than one serving per container but could be consumed in one sitting.
The next part of the label lists the amount per serving and percentage of the daily value for five key nutrients—fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and protein. These are the nutrients said to have the most impact on your health.
Some nutrients you’ll want to limit, like fat, sodium, and added sugars. Others you may want to increase like fiber and protein.
Let’s break it down by nutrient
Total Fat, Saturated Fat, and Trans Fats
Total Fat is the total amount of fat per serving. Then it’s broken down into how much saturated and trans-fats are in a serving.
Saturated fats are found in animal products and tropical oils including meat, milk, cheese, butter, coconut oil, and palm oil
Trans fats are naturally found in some meat and dairy, but this also includes artificial trans fats. Artificial trans fats are found in products like margarine, shortening, fried foods, commercially baked goods, and snack foods.
Artificial trans-fats are made in a process called hydrogenation where hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it solid at room temperature. Hydrogenated fats are cheap to make and used in lots of processed foods and in restaurants.
Artificial trans fats have been shown to raise LDL or bad cholesterol and lower HDL or good cholesterol levels which may lead to an increased risk for heart disease. In 2015, the FDA ruled that trans fats were unsafe to eat.
Food makers had until 2020 to remove it from food, but with one caveat: If the amount of trans fat per serving is less than .5 mg per serving, it does not need to be listed on the Nutrition Facts label. This might not seem like a lot, but if you’re eating lots of packaged or restaurant foods, it can add up quickly.
There’s continued debate about whether saturated fats are actually “bad” for you. I don’t like to label foods as good or bad. But there is no question that artificial trans-fats should be limited or avoided.
The current US dietary guidelines don’t set a specific upper limit for cholesterol. They recommend minimizing cholesterol to the extent that you can meet your nutritional needs—Yup, I know, clear as mud.
Cholesterol is complicated so let’s keep it simple. While there are exceptions, most foods that are high in saturated fat tend to be high in cholesterol. When you can, cook with leaner cuts of meat, fish, and poultry. Reach for olive oil instead of butter.
Salt is found in just about all processed foods. It’s a flavor enhancer and acts as a preservative. This is an important number to look at as most of us consume way too much salt.
US dietary guidelines recommend that we keep sodium consumption under 2,300 milligrams per day which is about one teaspoon of table salt
Salt can add up quickly, especially if you eat a lot of packaged foods. When available go for no sodium or low sodium options to control the amount of salt you add to your food.
Fiber is one of the nutrients most of us aren’t getting enough of. The US dietary guidelines recommend women consume 22 – 28 grams per day, and men should consume 28-34 grams per day.
Fiber-rich foods include legumes, beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Fiber fills you up and keeps things moving if you know what I mean.
Total Sugars and Including Added Sugars
There are two basic types of sugar in a product:
Naturally occurring sugar is found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
Added sugar is found in sweet treats like cookies, cake, candy, and soda. Added sugar is also found in savory foods like peanut butter, bread, marinara sauce, and salad dressing.
Total sugars represent the total amount of sugar in one serving.
Including added sugars represents how much of the total sugars are added sugars
The added sugars are what you really want to pay attention to.
Take yogurt for instance. Yogurt is made from milk which contains naturally occurring sugar.
A 5.3-ounce serving of a popular brand of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt contains 5 grams of naturally occurring sugar and no added sugar.
That same brand’s nonfat vanilla flavored Greek yogurt contains a total of 11 grams of sugar, which includes 7 grams of added sugar. So that means 4 grams of sugar are naturally occurring and the other 7 grams are added.
To put this into context, 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. That means almost 2 teaspoons of sugar were added to the vanilla-flavored yogurt.
Ketchup is another sugar bomb. A popular brand of ketchup comes in at 4 grams of added sugar per tablespoon of ketchup!
Protein is found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, soy, and whole grains.
Knowing how much protein is in a serving of food is particularly helpful if you’re following a keto diet plan.
The daily recommendation for protein ranges from 10 – 30% of your total daily calorie intake, depending on your age, gender, height, current weight, and activity level.
Generally speaking, at least 15 – 30 grams of protein per meal. This is the minimum amount of protein you need to stay healthy. If you’re looking to lose weight or build muscle, you may require more protein. Work with a nutritionist to determine your individual needs.
% of Daily Value
The % Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of a nutrient found in a single serving that contributes to the total recommended daily amount or limit.
The %DV also helps you determine if something is high or low in a nutrient i.e. low-fat, low-sodium, or high-protein. In general:
5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low
20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high
Since the number of calories eaten per day varies widely from person to person, the %DV number is based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.
I know, it’s a little confusing, but don’t make yourself nuts with this one. Use the %DV as a general guideline to determine if you’re getting enough or too much of a particular nutrient.
The Ingredients List: What Exactly am I Eating?
Forget about the fancy labels and health claims on the front of the package. We’ll get into what those mean (and don’t mean) in another post.
When purchasing packaged foods, the information you really need to pay attention to is the humble Ingredients List.
The Ingredients List is usually found below the Nutrition Facts label. It lists each ingredient in the order of most to least.
For example, let’s take peanut butter. One popular brand lists the ingredients as peanuts, sugar, and salt.
Ingredient names can be unfamiliar and confusing.
Salt is also listed as sodium, sodium benzoate, sodium nitrate, disodium, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Sugar is also listed as sucrose, fructose, honey, maple syrup, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, agave, nectar, evaporated cane sugar, molasses, coconut sugar, and turbinado sugar.
So if you have several of these ingredients in one serving, the salt and/or sugar can really add up.
Then there are those unfamiliar ingredients like sodium bisulfite, caramel color, guar gum, and carrageenan, which are preservatives, coloring, thickeners, and emulsifiers.
Fortified foods like bread and orange juice list added vitamins and minerals by their scientific name--ascorbic acid for vitamin C and alpha-tocopherol for vitamin E.
And let’s not forget the ubiquitous natural flavoring, artificial flavor, and spices.
Common sense prevails here. If you’re buying a can of crushed tomatoes, tomatoes should be the first ingredient on the list. If you’re not sure what an ingredient is, look it up.
Knowledge is power . . . but don’t make yourself crazy
Oscar Wilde famously said “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” I couldn’t agree more.
Food is more than just nutrition and fuel for our bodies—it’s part of our social fabric.
It's a celebration of our family traditions and cultural backgrounds. It’s a way of bringing people together. Cooking is my love language. Preparing simple and delicious meals for my family and friends is how I show them I care.
What we eat also depends on economics and location. Not everyone has the budget or access to fresh organic produce and meats. Focusing on minimally processed and packaged foods with the least amount of added sugar, salt and fat is a good place to start.
Use the information on the Nutrition Facts Label and Ingredients List to help you make informed choices.