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Understanding Nutrition Labels

What better way is there to get to know your food than by understanding the label that comes with it? At first glance, the black and white panel can be intimidating, but with a few label-reading skills, you’ll be better equipped to make more effective decisions at the grocery store.

Serving Size:

  • The first thing nutrition labels offer us is the servings per container, followed by the serving size. You’ll notice that the serving size is offered in two units of measurements: a familiar unit followed by a metric unit. The familiar unit, for example “1 cup,” allows customers to easily visualize how much of the product is considered a serving, and can then efficiently compare it to similar products.

  • The serving size is NOT a recommendation of how much you should consume of the product, but rather the amount that people typically consume.

  • The rest of the information on the label is based on that typical consumption amount.

  • If the serving size does not match your typical consumption of the product simply adjust all later information accordingly.

For example, if you usually consume 2 cups of a product that has a serving size of 1, you should multiply all additional information by 2.


  • The amount of calories on a food label is specific to the amount of energy you will receive from one serving of the food.


This section of the nutrition label displays key nutrients that impact our health.


  • Total fat is the combination of your unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats.

  • The biggest concern that people usually have when consuming fats, is how it will affect their cholesterol levels. There are both good and bad fats and cholesterol:

  • Bad fats (saturated and trans fats) raise bad cholesterol (LDL) levels, which increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, and so their consumption should be limited.

  • Good fats (mono- and polyunsaturated fats) can lower LDL cholesterol and higher good cholesterol (HDL), which decreases risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, and so their consumption is encouraged.

  • Trans fats have been recently banned by the FDA, and so you should see it listed with 0g.


  • Although cholesterol has a bad reputation, our body needs cholesterol in order to build cells and certain hormones. The problem arises when too much cholesterol is in the body.

  • Our liver actually makes all the cholesterol we need to survive, but the body is also able to benefit from dietary cholesterol. And so, contrary to popular belief dietary cholesterol is not too problematic in healthy individuals, but, of course, it should still be limited.


  • Although sodium is an essential nutrient, eating too much of it increases the risk for developing cardiovascular issues.

Total Carbohydrate:

Despite what fad diets claim, carbs are an essential part of the human diet. However, not all carbs are equal, and there are some that are healthier than others.

1- Fiber: a diet high in fiber serves many benefits:

  • Increases satiety (should lead to reduced calorie intake)

  • Increases frequency of bowel movements

  • Lowers blood glucose and cholesterol levels

2- Total sugars: sugars that are naturally present in the food product (such as from fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products) as well as sugars added by the producer.

  • Added sugars: added during the processing of foods and can be anything from table sugar to honey.

  • The consumption of added sugars should be limited since it makes it difficult to meet daily recommended levels of important nutrients while remaining within the calories limit.

  • The word “includes” before Added Sugars on the nutrition label indicates that the grams of added sugars was accounted for in the grams of Total Sugars.


  • Proteins are described as the building blocks of life since they are vital part of our cells, enzymes, hormones, etc…

Vitamin and Minerals:

  • Listed on the nutrition label, are four essential vitamins and minerals that Americans generally do not consume the recommended amounts of: Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium.

  • Diets meeting the recommended amounts of these nutrients can reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis, anemia, and high blood pressure.

% Daily Value:

  • Daily Values (DVs) are reference amounts of nutrients to consume or not to exceed each day.

  • If an individual is in need of more or less of certain nutrients, this segment of the nutrition label will aid them in finding foods best for them.

  • The % DVs on food labels shows how much a nutrient in a serving of a food contributes to a 2000-calorie daily diet. Therefore, the % DV column doesn’t add up to 100% because the percentage for each nutrient is specific to that nutrient’s daily intake on a scale of 0-100%.

  • Even if you’re not following a 2000 calorie diet, the %DV on the labels can still help you determine whether a food is high or low in a specific nutrient if you follow this general rule:

♦ 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low

♦ 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high

  • Choose foods that have a high %DV of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium

  • When comparing products from the same food group, for example, two cereal brands, choose the one that has a:

♦ Higher %DV for Dietary Fiber, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium

♦Lower %DV for Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars

  • %DV can also help you balance what you eat throughout the day. So, say you eat something high in saturated fats, try to only consume foods low in saturated fats for the rest of the day.

So, next time your torn between which granola bar to purchase, try reading the food label to make the healthier choice!

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