The nutrition facts label is meant to help consumers make healthy food choices, but all the numbers and measurements can be downright confusing. It’s also loaded with intimidating words, like “sugar”, “fat” and “carbs” — oh my! How much of each nutrient should you have and what numbers should you look at first? To answer these questions and more, TODAY.com tapped two nutrition experts — Jessica Cording, RD, dietitian and author of The Little Book of Game Changers and Cynthia Sass, RD, a plant-based performance coach — to shed some light on the nutrition facts label so that you can read one with confidence.
What is on the nutrition facts label?
To use the nutrition facts label to your advantage, you need to understand what’s on there and why. Here’s a breakdown of the elements on the label.
The “serving size” and “servings per container” are always listed at the top of the label. The serving size is the amount that most people typically eat or drink, not the amount that you should eat or drink. For example, the serving size on a bag of rice is ¼ cup (dry), which is the amount that most people may add to their meal. Serving sizes are listed in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the weight in grams. The servings per container reflect the total number of servings in the entire container. Using the rice example, there may be 10 servings per container.
Some packages may have “dual columns”, or two serving side-by-side. The first column lists the amount per serving, while the second column lists the amount per container. This is often used on small packages, such as a single-serve bag of chips, or lower-calorie items, like a pint of low-calorie ice cream.
Calories are a measurement of energy. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) uses a 2,000 calorie/day diet as the standard for most Americans, although this can vary based on size, activity level, gender and other factors. The calories listed on the food label show the amount in a serving size, not the entire package.
Underneath the calories are the key nutrients that play a role in overall health, including fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. The FDA lists saturated fat, sodium and added sugar as “nutrients to get less of” and fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron ad potassium are “nutrients to get more of.” Based on the daily recommendations, these nutrients are listed in grams, milligrams or % daily value.
% Daily Value
The percentages on the right side state the percentage of the daily value (DV). The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (USDA) sets a recommended daily amount of each nutrient. The % DV tells you how one serving of that nutrient stacks up to the total daily recommendation. Food that is 5% DV or less is considered low, while food that is 20% DV or is considered high.
Although not on the nutrition facts label itself, ingredients are a significant part of food packaging. The ingredients are listed underneath the nutrition panel and are required by the FDA. They are listed in descending order, with the first ingredient being the most prevalent in the recipe.
Where do the nutrient recommendations come from?
It’s puzzling that some nutrients are listed in grams, others are milligrams, and all of those numbers play a role in a total daily percentage. But rest assured that these measurements aren’t random. “The government sets recommended intakes for nutrients, which vary by age and sex, known as recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) and adequate intakes (AIs),” says Sass. The RDA is based on the estimated average requirement (EAR) or the amount that half the healthy individuals would need to eat to reduce the risk of disease. If there is not enough scientific evidence to determine the RDA, then an AI is determined based on intake from healthy people.
These numbers — RDA and AI — are used to set the percent daily value. Since the RDA and AI vary based on age and gender, “the U.S. Food and Drug Administration selects only one value (%DV) for each nutrient based on the needs of the general population,” says Sass. “It provides a frame of reference for helping people understand which foods are good sources of which nutrients and which foods contribute high amounts of things that should be consumed more sparingly, ” says Cording.
What dietitians look for on the nutrition label
It’s a good idea to glance at the nutrition label on all foods, but if you’re short on time, dietitians say you can pay attention to certain things. According to Cording, what to look for on the nutrition label is subjective. “To a degree, whether something is “healthy” depends on the individual and their unique needs and goals,” Cording states. A person trying to reduce their LDL cholesterol may want to prioritize fiber and look for foods that are low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fatty acids. Someone focused on supporting bone health will want to pay attention to calcium and vitamin D content.
Sass takes a different approach. “The first thing I look at is the ingredient list — in my opinion, it’s the best way to assess any food’s healthfulness and helps put numbers on the Nutrition Facts panel in perspective,” says Sass. For example, a certain food made with nuts may be high in fat, but it’s also rich in calcium and fiber. Glancing at the ingredients helps you assess where that fat content comes from.
“After reviewing the ingredient list, I think it’s important to look at all of the numbers as a set rather than zeroing in on a single value, like calories, or grams of carbohydrates, sugar, or protein,” adds Sass. “That oversimplification of nutrition led to some major health hiccups, like accepting highly processed foods as healthy because they were low in fat and shunning naturally nutrient-rich foods because they contain carbohydrates,” says Sass.
Both dietitians agree that it’s best not to have an “all or nothing” mentality when assessing foods. If a food contains a few teaspoons of added sugar but also provides an impressive %DV for key nutrients, like fiber, iron, and magnesium, Sass says it’s worth having a place in your diet.
That said, if you have a health condition or are unsure what nutrients are important for your lifestyle, consider meeting with a registered dietitian.