General Nutrition

How to read nutrition labels

April 16, 2024

Written by Maeve Ginsberg

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

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Key Points

  • Nutrition labels have important information about calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients.
  • There are certain vitamins and minerals you should try to prioritize in your diet.
  • There are also certain nutrients you should try to limit based on negative health effects. 

Nutrition labels can be incredibly confusing. Consumers are more health-conscious than ever, and manufacturers know this, so they use clever tricks to make you think their products are healthier than they might truly be. How can you know if a food is actually healthy? How can you use food labels to inform your food choices and meet your health goals?

Let’s talk more about how to read nutrition labels to empower healthier food choices.

What is on nutrition labels?

Nutrition labels have several different components. These are their main elements:

Servings and serving size

At the top of the nutrition facts label, you’ll find the serving information. This includes the servings per container and serving size, which is listed both by volume and by weight.

Image credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Image credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Calories

Next up are the calories. The calories per serving are always there, but some products may have calories per container listed as well. Be sure to look at this section carefully, as it can make a product seem lower calorie than it really is. That’s why it’s important to measure your portions rather than try to eyeball them.

Nutrients

The final component of the nutrition label is the nutrients section. This is where you see the macronutrient and micronutrient breakdown – how many grams of carbohydrates (including added sugars), fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals are in each serving. These amounts are accompanied by the percent daily value of each nutrient. We’ll dig into that a bit later.

Ingredient list

Below the nutrient facts label, you’ll find the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. This means that whatever ingredient weighs the most of all the ingredients (which usually means it is one of the primary ingredients) is listed first.

This is where to look out for ingredients you want to avoid. You should check for any foods to which you have sensitivities or allergies, or for added sugars (like dextrose or high-fructose corn syrup) and artificial sweeteners (like maltitol, aspartame, or sucralose). Allergens are often bolded but are always called out at the end of the list where it says “Contains: wheat” and may also say “May contain: soy, eggs,” for example.

Expiration dates

You can find expiration date information on the product label or another part of the package. However, not every expiration date is simply what the last “safe” day to consume the food is. There are several different options – and they can be confusing!

Here’s how to understand expiration dates:

  • “Best if used by” (or “best if used before”) indicates how long the product will have its best taste or quality.
  • “Sell by” is the manufacturer’s suggestion for when a store should sell items such as meat, poultry, eggs, or milk products by. You don’t want to buy products past this date.
  • “Use by” is similar to “best if used by” – it tells how long items will be at peak quality. Using the product after that date might mean diminished taste or freshness.

It’s important to note that none of these dates indicate when a food is no longer safe to consume. Expiration dates are not compulsory and are added voluntarily by manufacturers, so they may not always be present.

What do the percentages on nutrition labels mean?

The “% Daily Value” (% DV) is how much of one serving of the food contributes to each nutrient. These values are listed in grams, milligrams, or micrograms and show how much one serving adds to your daily intake.

You can use these values to determine if one serving is high or low in a particular nutrient. 5% or less is considered low, while 20% or more is considered high.

Remember that daily values are generally based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, which is treated as the “average” intake for the “average” person. However, you have your own needs based on height, weight, activity level, age, sex, and many more factors. You can work with your dietitian to determine what daily intake is right for you in terms of calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, and more.

What nutrients to prioritize

Now that you know how to read nutrition labels, what nutrients should you look out for to prioritize?

Macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, fats – are the building blocks of your daily intake. While every individual has their own macronutrient needs, you can keep an eye on these values to ensure you’re not consuming too much of any one macronutrient. It’s helpful to balance your macros at each meal to prevent a blood sugar spike, which typically occurs from consuming too many carbs at once without enough total fat and protein to balance it out.

Fiber is a critical part of every diet. You can find the fiber contents just below the carbohydrates on the nutrition label. Dietary fiber is important for digestion and is linked to lower levels of heart disease. The FDA’s daily recommended amount of fiber is 28 grams, but that is a rough approximation based on a standard 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

Vitamins are crucial for your overall health. While there are plenty of vitamin supplements, it’s ideal to get as many as possible through your diet. There are 13 essential vitamins for proper body function, and they include vitamin D, A, C, and B. Vitamins support your vision, skin, and bones, as well as your immune system.

Minerals are similarly important for general health. Potassium, calcium, iron, and zinc are some of the most common minerals present in food. They help build strong bones (preventing osteoporosis), support hydration, keep your blood healthy, and mediate your metabolism.

What nutrients to limit

Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (an official term, abbreviated as SAD) is full of suboptimal nutrients, with excess sodium, saturated fat, refined grains, and added sugars. It might feel like the odds are stacked against you sometimes, with unhealthy packaged foods being much cheaper than fresh produce and high-quality meat. Very few Americans meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s dietary guidelines, and poor diet is associated with more than just weight gain and obesity. It’s also correlated with disease development and cancer.

So, what nutrients should you limit as you try to make healthy choices?

  • Saturated fats: High saturated fat in foods like processed meat, baked goods, and fried foods – all of which are prevalent in the Standard American Diet – may cause heart disease, anxiety, and depression when consumed in excess.
  • Added sugars: Consuming too much added sugar can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cognitive decline, and cancer.
  • Excess sodium: Sodium is a critical mineral, but too much of it can have negative health effects. Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, or heart disease.
  • Cholesterol: Cholesterol itself is not a nutrient but can be influenced by your diet. It comes in two forms: high density lipoprotein (HDL) and low density (LDL). HDL is often called “good” cholesterol, while LDL is considered “bad.” Your cholesterol levels are influenced by a number of factors – genetics, medications, and certain health conditions. It’s important to monitor your cholesterol levels throughout your life, and if your levels are off, prioritizing lower-fat foods and eating as little saturated fat as possible will likely help.

How to make healthier food choices

Feeling overwhelmed as you try to take charge of your health? You’re not alone. Learning how to read nutrition labels is a great first step. To continue your journey, consider working with a registered dietitian. A dietitian can help you better understand how the food you eat impacts your body and how it relates to your personal health goals.

You can find a qualified dietitian covered by your health insurance with Fay Nutrition. With Fay, you can pay as little as $0 per session for personalized dietitian services from a board-certified provider.

Click here to get started.



The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Sources
  • National Institute on Aging - How To Read Food and Beverage Labels
  • U.S. Food and Drug Association - How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label
  • U.S. Food and Drug Association - The Lows and Highs of Percent Daily Value on the Nutrition Facts Label
  • U.S. Food and Drug Association - Interactive Nutrition Facts Label - Dietary Fiber
  • Mayo Clinic - Nutrition and healthy eating 
  • Healthline - 6 Essential Nutrients and Why Your Body Needs Them
  • The University of Alabama at Birmingham - The Effects of an American Diet on Health
  • The American Journal of Psychiatry - Association of Western and Traditional Diets With Depression and Anxiety in Women
  • Harvard School of Public Health - Salt and Sodium 


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Maeve Ginsberg

Written by Maeve Ginsberg

Maeve Ginsberg is a health and wellness writer with a personal passion for fitness. As an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and former powerlifter, she loves combining her interests in health with her writing. Maeve has a Bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. 

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Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected, and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.

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