Nutrition labels can be as baffling as ancient hieroglyphs if you don't know what you're looking at. But don't worry! We're here to break down these labels, piece by piece, so that you can see beyond the question of "how many calories?" and make more informed food purchases.

The Basics of Reading Nutrition Labels

If you’re working on making more informed nutritional decisions, then  understanding the basics of reading nutrition labels is going to be essential to your success. There are some key components to understand when reading a food label. Let’s break it down. 

Understanding Serving Size

First things first: serving size. This little piece of information is the cornerstone of the nutrition label. And take it from a seasoned food label veteran, always check the serving amount. Sometimes, things that look like they should be a single serving (like an inidivually packaged pair of poptarts) is actually two servings. That isn’t to say that you can’t eat both poptarts! But if you’re tracking caloric intake, its good to know that the info on the label will need to be doubled to count correctly.

In some cases, these food manufacturers have actually started putting the caloric break down of a single serving AND what that looks like if you eat the whole package. Really takes the math out of it, which we can all appreciate.. 

Evaluating Total Calories

Next up, total calories. This number tells you how much energy (yes, calories are a unit of energy!) you're getting from a serving. It's usually the big bold number at the top of the packaging - so it’s not hard to miss, but knowing this can help you manage your daily calorie intake. Remember, it's per serving. So, if you're eating a pack with two servings, double it.

Analyzing Nutrient Content

Nutrient content is where things get a bit more interesting. It’s a lot of information, but mostly, there are a few things to keep an eye on. This section lists the amounts of various nutrients, such as fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and proteins. Fats are further broken down into saturated and trans fats—two types you generally want to limit. Carbs are split into dietary fiber and sugars. And then there’s protein, the builder of muscles and repairer of tissues. Lastly, give sodium a peek to make sure you’re not pumping your system with too much salt. 

Unveiling the Percent Daily Value

Percent Daily Value (%DV) helps you understand how much of each nutrient you're getting relative to your daily needs. If something has 20% DV of calcium, you're getting one-fifth of your daily calcium requirement in one serving. Handy, right? These numbers are good to know if you’re specifically targeting fiber or trying to steer clear of foods with high sugar content.

Variations in Nutrition Labels

Just when you think you've got it all figured out, you encounter different types of labels. Fear not, brave label reader!

Nutrition labels aren't one-size-fits-all. Different countries have different formats. In the U.S., the FDA mandates a specific layout, while the EU and other regions may have their unique designs. It’s like visiting a new country and learning their traffic rules.

Some products have special labels. For example, dietary supplements often have a Supplement Facts label, which looks a bit different but follows the same principles. Alcoholic beverages, on the other hand, might only provide calories per serving, making it trickier to gauge their nutritional value.

Step-by-Step Guide to Reading Nutrition Labels

Let’s break down the process into bite-sized steps—pun absolutely intended.

Step 1: Begin with Serving Information

Always start with the serving size and the number of servings per container. If the serving size is unrealistically small (who eats just 5 chips?), adjust your expectations accordingly.

Step 2: Assess Total Calories per Serving and Container

Check the calories per serving and multiply by the number of servings if you plan to consume more. This can prevent the dreaded moment when you realize you’ve just ingested 1000 calories of "healthy" granola.

Step 3: Limiting Certain Nutrients

Some nutrients should be limited, such as saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium. High intake of these can lead to health issues like heart disease and hypertension. Aim for lower %DV in these areas.

Step 4: Ensuring Adequate Intake of Beneficial Nutrients

Look for high %DV in beneficial nutrients like dietary fiber, vitamins (A, C, D), calcium, iron, and potassium. These are your friends, helping you stay healthy and energized.

Step 5: Understanding the Percentage of Daily Value

Use the %DV as a guide. A rule of thumb: 5% DV or less is low, 20% DV or more is high. This can help you quickly assess if a product is good or bad for your diet.

Example Food Label

FATTY Meat Sticks Original 2oz 

  1. Serving Size: In a box of 2 oz Original Buffalo Chicken there are 20 servings and each stick is a single serving.
  2. Total Calories: For this particular option, there are 100 calories per meat stick.
  3. Nutrients: With meat sticks, you will usually be looking at fat and protein content. Typically, meat sticks are made with pork or beef or a combo of both, which results in a higher fat content. However, since these are chicken, the fat content is low and the protein content is high, which is a great combo!

Understanding Food and Beverage Labels

Now that you’re a pro at nutrition labels, let’s expand your skillset to food and beverage labels.

Deciphering Food and Beverage Product Dates

Best by, sell by, use by—what do they all mean? "Best by" indicates peak quality, not safety. "Sell by" is for retailers, suggesting when to take the product off shelves. "Use by" is the important one for consumers, as it indicates the last date for optimal safety.

Deconstructing the Nutrition Facts Label

We've already touched on the nutrition facts label, but it's worth reiterating. This label gives you a comprehensive view of what’s inside your food. Pay close attention to the nutrients and serving sizes to make informed choices.

Interpreting the Ingredient List

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The first few ingredients make up the bulk of the product. If sugar is listed first, guess what? You're basically eating sugar. Look for whole foods and fewer artificial ingredients.

Demystifying Labels: Light, Low Calorie, Organic, and More

Marketing buzzwords like "light," "low calorie," and "organic" can be misleading. "Light" can mean fewer calories or fat but check the actual numbers. "Low calorie" must meet specific guidelines but don’t assume it's automatically healthy. "Organic" means fewer pesticides, but the nutritional content is not necessarily better. If something is low in fat, then its safe to assume that flavor will be supplemented somehow - usually in the form of added sugars or carbs. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Nutrition Labels

Let’s tackle some burning questions you might have.

What Do the Different Nutrient Claims Mean?

Claims like "high in fiber," "low in fat," and "reduced sodium" follow strict regulations. "High in" means at least 20% of the DV per serving, while "low" means a nutrient is present in small amounts.

Are All Ingredients Listed in Order of Quantity?

Yes, ingredients are listed from most to least by weight. This helps you understand what you're primarily consuming.

How Can I Use Nutrition Labels to Make Healthier Choices?

Compare products by their nutrition labels. Choose those with lower saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars, and higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Is It Necessary to Pay Attention to Serving Size?

Absolutely! Ignoring serving size is like misreading a map. It can lead to consuming more calories and nutrients than intended, derailing your diet goals.


Mastering nutrition labels is like gaining a superpower in the grocery store. It empowers you to make healthier choices, understand what you’re eating, and take control of your diet. Whether you’re looking to lose weight, manage a condition, or just eat better, understanding nutrition labels is key to snacking smartly.

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July 01, 2024 — Katie Liguori