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How to Read a Food Nutrition Label

By Edited Nov 13, 2015 1 0

Spanning one aisle to the next, our modern day supermarkets are filled with thousands of food products for consumers to eat. In order to help provide accurate information regarding each product, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) requires that each product contain a food nutrition label either on the back or side of the container or package. Usually situated near the directions for use, the food nutrition label can be veiled in a degree of mystery, with potential consumers oftentimes misinterpreting the information that is given.

Grab an item or product of food, find its food nutrition label, and follow the steps in this Info Barrel article in order to learn how to best read a food nutrition label. Because serving sizes are standardized and displayed with similar units, such as cups or grams, it will be much easier to compare two food products, especially if they are similar in nature. Oftentimes, a frequent comparison may be between a known manufacturer's product (typically situated midway between the top and the bottom of a shelf) or a store's 'cheaper' version of that same product (which is typically situated on the bottom of a shelf).

Things You Will Need

a Food Nutrition Label

Step 1

As the first major item of consideration, directly under the bold "Nutrition Facts" text located at the very top of a food nutrition label, are data regarding the serving sizes and servings per container. If a consumer were to skip directly to the "Calories" section directly below, it may be tempting to assume that those calories are what the entire product contains. Instead, every nutrition fact label typically holds more servings than the data provided would indicate.

For example, a product may have 5 'servings per container', however the actual food nutrition label will only provide data regarding one serving. Had the calories listed been 250, if you had a product with 5 servings you would have to multiply that by 5, which would leave you with the total calorie count being 1,250 calories. Carbonated beverages and sodas are food products that people tend to be fooled by because the simply look at the amount of calories (in a single serving), rather than consider the total amount of calories they consumed by drinking the entire bottle.

Step 2

Because serving size is so important, as you continue to read through your nutrition facts label, be sure to pay particular attention to each number or percentage as it relates to a single serving. By referencing back to the top of the label, you can find the "servings per container", which is typically a higher number than the "serving size". If the "serving size" is 1 and the "servings per container" is 5, you will have to multiply every presented piece of information or data by '5' in order to figure out just how many are in the entire package or container. By continually reminding yourself just how many servings you will actually be eating, when reading a food nutrition label, you can keep in context not only the amount of calories that would be consumed with the entire consumption of the product, but also the calories from fat, cholesterol, sodium, etc.

Step 3

Understanding the roll, in your diet, of each separate piece of data on a nutrition facts label will be absolutely imperative. While a nutrition facts label can quickly become just an assortment of words and numbers, these words and numbers do have an implication on your overall health. With calories being a measure of energy, with the more calories you eat, the more you will have to work out and exercise in order to burn off those calories. Even though some conditions, and children with fast metabolisms, may require very high calorie consumption, many Americans do suffer from over consumption of food and calories. Unless you know that you require a significant amount of calories, be sure to read your nutrition facts label in context of what a single serving will provide you.

Because calories can come from a variety of locations, food nutrition labels include "calories from fat" which flanks to the right side of the "calories". Generally, the lower this number the better, unless you know that you require a substantial amount of calories from fat. What taken in context of the overall calorie count, the "calories from fat" reading will be a smaller number than the "calories" number. If it were 150, and your calories were 300, then you know right away that 50% of your food's calories are coming from fat. If the food package had 5 servings, with each serving having 150 calories from fat, you would consume 750 calories from fat if you eat the entire product.

Step 4

Generally, you will want to limit your total fat (saturated fats and trans fats), cholesterol and sodium that you consume in your diet. While these elements of food may actually be required in significant quantities in those with certain disorders or illnesses, Americans typically don't need more of these. When looking at your nutrition facts label, to the right of all these elements, you will first see a standardized measurement unit or value, like grams, followed by a percentage (%) daily value.

Step 5

While total fat, cholesterol, and sodium are nutrients that Americans tend to eat in excess, Americans tend not to get enough of dietary fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. If you train yourself to choose foods that are high in those nutrients, and limiting in total fat, cholesterol, and sodium, you can greatly increase your health because medical professionals link those to more chronic conditions, like hypertension and obesity. As you can see, when reading the nutrition facts label, the information provided generally flow from top to bottom in a way to shows consumers what nutrients that tend to be eaten in excess or abused first.
While reading food nutrition fact labels can be very strait forward for some, for other people it can be shrouded in a bit of a veil of mystery. Even if you don't fully understand the implications of consuming each individual nutrient, it is important to know that the nutrients generally flow from least healthy to most healthy. Many foods, at least nowadays, contain high amount of the 'bad' nutrients and will therefore have very high % values per serving. Be vigilant in limiting these nutrients, but expanding your diet to include the oftentimes neglected nutrients that appear further down the label.

Tips & Warnings

Even though it can be very easy to get wrapped around by incessantly reading food nutrition fact labels, there is no substitute for exercise and just generally living an happy and healthy life. If you know that you will be consuming greater quantities of calories, it may be necessarily to simply plan for greater calorie expenditure by running or exercising more throughout the day. Your life is ultimately in your hands, and the nutrition food facts label, if used properly, can become a greater tool in helping you to both limit the bad nutrients that you consume but also increase the good nutrients as well.
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