How to Read
Nutrition Labels

Yes, we’re serious, and yes this is worth reading.

Ever picked up a package of your favorite snack and realized that the serving size is way smaller than what you usually serve yourself? Or been surprised when you realize that the tomato sauce you always buy from the store contains more sugar per serving than a small breakfast muffin?

That’s what this blog post is for. It’s a simple guide to help you decipher labels and understand what all those words and numbers really mean.

1. Serving size

This is honestly the most important piece of information on the label, because it sets the limit for what all the other numbers mean. Now, just a heads up, a serving size on a nutrition label isn’t the same as a recommended serving size. There’s actually a pretty big difference, so if you’re counting calories or macros, you’ll have to work out how much is in the serving you’ve given yourself and how much that equates to.

2. Percentage (%)

That little % sign that’s on the right hand side of the label under the words Daily Value, it’s an indication of what percentage of the daily recommended amounts the food you are eating (in the serving size in the label) accounts for. On the very bottom of the label there’s a section which shows you the total recommended calories for women and men, along with the breakdown of how much of each macronutrient should be eaten to meet that amount of calories. So for example, if the label says Total Fat 5g, and then the percentage on that same line says 8%, that means that it’s around 8% of the 65 g or 80 g that make up the recommended amount of total fat you should have each day.

3. Total fat, saturated fat, trans fat

Contrary to popular belief, saturated fat is the good stuff you find in animal products. Unsaturated fat is made up of monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and trans fats. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are typically found in plants, and is good for you. Trans fats are typically found in partially hydrogenated oils, and are linked to higher LDL cholesterol levels and lower HDL cholesterol levels, which is the reverse of what the American Heart Association would recommend. If you see high levels of this on a nutrition label, it’s a food to avoid.

4. Total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars

Carbs are the body’s main source of energy. It breaks down into dietary fiber, starches, and sugars. Dietary fiber is good for your intestines and helps you feel fuller, but it is harder to digest, so it’s good to make sure you don’t have more than is recommended each day. Starch and sugar are what the body turns into glucose to give your body energy, but as we know, too much sugar can be bad for overall health; limit your intake accordingly.

5. Protein, sodium, cholesterol

These don’t have any complex breakdowns; they pretty much do what they say on the tin. Protein is needed for building muscle mass, sodium is a mineral which in large amounts isn’t good for the body (it causes water retention), but is actually useful for the body in re-establishing electrolyte balance after an intense workout. Cholesterol can either be good (HDL cholesterol) or bad (LDL cholesterol), so it’s best to monitor levels of both.

Has this helped you get a better understanding of all the numbers on nutrition labels?

Femi A-Williams is a health and fitness convert trying to reconcile a healthy lifestyle and a happy food life. She is 80% whole grain and 20% donut.

All posts by Femi A-Williams