Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Nowadays with most foods undergoing some kind of processing, it is important to understand what is in our foods. One tool that supports awareness is the Nutrition Facts label. The only problem is that you have to be savy enough to understand what it’s actually trying to communicate. And let’s be honest- all these numbers and milligrams and percentages can be pretty confusing. So, when it comes to increasing mindfulness and awareness of what you’re eating in terms of calories and nutritional value, learning to properly inspect and understand a nutrition facts label is key.
Below you’ll find a break down of what these color-coded boxes are supposed to tell you. The FDA will be putting in place new requirements for how a Nutrition Facts label is to be printed, so below you will see the current and the new label formats. Once you start getting into the habit of label reading, you might notice that a lot of products have already implemented the new label format, though it will not officially go into effect until January 1, 2020.
Shows serving size. Most packaged foods contain multiple servings per package, that is why portion awareness is important.
The calories of 1 serving size.
Fat content in grams. Differentiates between different types of fat such as saturated, trans and unsaturated.
Sodium or salt content of the food. For those trying to lower blood pressure, eating a limited sodium diet is highly recommended. Generally eating less than 2,300 mg of sodium is recommended for blood pressure control, though limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg provides greater benefits.
Carbohydrate content. This portion differentiates on the new label between total sugars and sugars added. Also, this section indicates the fiber content of 1 serving.
Protein content. Note there is no Daily Value percentage shown to the right of protein content as there is no minimum or maximum guidelines for protein intake.
Micronutrients- Vitamins and Minerals. This section breaks down the vitamins and minerals contained within one serving size and the percentage of daily intake this accounts for. On the new label format, the actual milligrams (or micrograms) of the vitamin or mineral will also be printed.
Daily Value percentage. A value of 5% or less is considered to be low and a value of 15% and more is considered to be high.
Here’s some more detail on each of the categories.
Low calorie content is considered 40 or less calories per serving.
Moderate calorie intake at around 100 or more calories per serving.
High calorie intake considered at 400 or more calories per serving.
For a healthy diet it is best to avoid or eliminate trans fats because of the many health risks associated with eating trans fats. Trans fats are manipulated or altered fats that do no naturally occur in nature. Trans fats occur with the application of high heat or hydrogenation of vegetable oils to alter the fat’s texture, taste and shelf life.
Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products such as meats, cheese, eggs and others. High intakes of saturated fats have been correlated with increased risk of heart disease. It is recommended to eat foods that mostly contain 5% or less daily value of saturated fat.
Unsaturated fat (poly and mono) are plant-based fats that can be found in foods like, nuts, seeds, chia, flax, avocado, olives, and others. Substantial intake of poly- or mono-unsaturated fats have shown benefits to heart and overall health, decreased inflammation, improved satiety, and more controlled weight.
Carbohydrates constitute a major source of energy. According to the AMDR (macronutrient recommendations) set forth by the USDA, a balanced diet should include about 45-65% of carbohydrates. But this is where quality of choices comes into play. Not all carbs are created the same. High quality carbs are rich in fiber and high in micronutrients – vitamins and minerals. Low quality carbs are more processed and refined and stripped of their fibers; this includes foods like bread, pasta, pastries, cookies, and the like.
Try to choose whole grain options when choosing processed foods like pasta or bread, which retain more of the natural fibers and micronutrients. This still leaves you with many options for carbs such as nuts, whole grains, oats, bulgur, crushed wheat, lentils, beans, quinoa, carrots, beets, potatoes, yams, peas, corn and many more. Choosing whole foods is key to not only including carbs but also vitamins, minerals and fiber.
For those aiming to control blood sugar and avoiding insulin spikes, diabetic recommendations suggest between 45-60 grams of carbohydrates per meal.
There are no set limitations or guidelines for protein intake. General recommendations state the average person should eat about 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per body weight in kg. This translates roughly into half your weight in grams of protein. So, for a person that weighs 150 pounds, their intake should be roughly 150/2= 75 grams. This is a very rough estimate and method for those who don’t like math. But a more accurate way to calculate your protein need is take your weight: 150lb/2.2= 68.18 kg, then use your body weight in kg and multiply by the recommended amount of 0.8 to 1.0 grams: 68.18 kg x 0.8 g (or x 1.0 g) = 54.5 to 68.2 grams of protein.
For Teens the recommended protein intake is a bit higher at 0.95 g per body weight in kg.
Adults are recommended an intake of 0.8-1.0 g/body kg.
Protein intake for pregnant women is recommended at 1.1 g/kg daily because of many ongoing changes
Athletes are recommended an intake of 1.2-1.4 g of protein/kg daily.
Processed foods contain high levels of sodium (salt) which enhances flavor and shelf life as it also acts as a preservative. Those working on improving cardiovascular health and lowering blood pressure are advised to limit daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg while the American Heart Association does state an ideal limit for sodium intake would be less than 1,500 mg.
Currently, the average American diet provides 3,400 mg of sodium on a daily basis. When reading labels, watch out for foods that contain more than 300 mg of sodium in 1 serving; that’s considered high.
Another nutrient to limit is cholesterol. Many people are trying to lower their cholesterol and this often is an item sought out on nutrition facts. The recommended limit is 300 mg of cholesterol daily. So, if you find a food that contains 45 mg of cholesterol or more in 1 serving, that would be considered a high cholesterol food. Cholesterol is primarily found in animal products as well such as meats, eggs, yogurt, dairy, and shellfish.
Aida Sadeghi, MS,CNS
If you enjoyed this post, check out my post on the highly debated drink coffee!
Decoding the Nutrition Label (Jan 29, 2019). UnlockFood.ca. Retrieved from:
Gordon, Barbara (Dec 8, 2017). The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label. Eat Right. Retrieved From: https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/the-basics-of-the-nutrition-facts-label.
How Much Sodium Should I eat per Day? American Heart Association. Retried from:
Labeling & Nutrition – Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Retrieved from: