Nutrition Labels Decoded: What Those Numbers Really Mean

Last Update: May 24, 2024

Let’s face it: Grocery shopping can be a drag. Most of us want to get in and out of a crowded supermarket as quickly as possible, and checking nutrition labels are we’re tossing things into the cart isn’t necessarily a priority when we’re eyeing the growing line at the checkout.

The fact is, most Americans aren’t giving nutrition labels much thought, which is a bummer, because they’re actually incredibly powerful tools when it comes to making healthy choices. The black-and-white boxes may look dreary, but think of them as akin to those super decoder rings you used to dig out of cereal boxes—they’ll unlock an entire world of information. Here’s a quick breakdown of how to read each section of the nutrition label—and some fun facts you might not know about what you’re eating every day.

Serving size: Seriously, read this.

The first thing you should notice on a nutrition label is the serving size. This section of the nutrition label will have both a serving size and number of servings in the container. For instance, if the serving size of pasta is one cup, and there are 6 servings in the package, there are 6 cups of pasta total.

Take a second look at at the serving size of some of your favorite foods and you’ll be surprised at what constitutes a ‘full serving’. What you might consider one portion (ahem, half a box of crackers?) might actually be three or four times the actual recommended serving size. If you’re paying attention to calories, this can definitely trip you up and lead you to underestimate your actual calorie intake. Wise up and check the label so you know exactly how much you’re eating.

Calories = Energy

The next line on the nutrition label tells you how many calories are in the total serving,  and then how many of those calories are from fat—interestingly enough, the calories from fat aren’t broken down into saturated fat versus trans fat, but we’ll get into that later. Take this calorie content and multiply it by how many servings you ate to calculate your calorie intake. But why does the number of calories matter? Calories measure the amount of energy we get from our food. Our bodies need enough calories to work properly, but eating too many calories and not getting enough nutritional benefits from your food can cause weight gain and other more serious health issues.

It’s challenging to put a number on the exact amount of calories you should ingest on a daily basis, and you can check how many calories the Institute of Medicine recommends you eat each day here.  Adults should be eating somewhere from 1,800 to 2,400 calories per day, depending on age and gender,  but the actual number of calories your body needs to function can vary dramatically based off of your energy output.

The Role of Fat, Cholesterol, Sugar, and Sodium

Moving down the nutrition label, the next section you see is labeled “Total Fat.” Cholesterol, sugars and sodium are measured below the fat. Fat adds flavor to food, and our bodies need fat to build muscle, produce hormones, insulate the body and store energy. Like fats, cholesterol helps build hormones and other biochemicals. Sugar gives the body the energy it needs to function.

Of course, there is a huge difference between naturally occurring sugars like fructose and added sugars, but that’s a topic for another time. Our bodies need all of these nutrients, but in moderation. Eating too much of any of these nutrients can lead to a host of health problems. Seventy-one percent of Americans eat too much added sugar,  and most of us eat more fat than is good for us. A good rule of thumb is to eat foods with the lowest numbers in this section of the nutrition label.

Breaking Down Carbohydrates and Protein

Carbs and protein—two other essential nutrients. Carbohydrates give the body tons of energy, and eating the right kinds of carbs can even help control your weight.  Check out the fiber label directly below the total carbohydrates. Ideally most of the total carbohydrates in your food come from fiber, so pay attention to the grams of fiber per serving. Fiber is essential for a healthy gut, but it also helps you feel fuller and slows the release of energy into your system so you don’t get that crazy sugar high from the carbs you eat. Protein is incredibly useful, helping with the growth of new cells, maintain tissues, build strong bones, and form red blood cells.

Vitamins and Minerals

Now we’re getting to the fun part of the nutrition label. Most of us don’t get enough vitamins and minerals in our diet, so you shouldn’t worry too much about limiting yourself to a certain serving of any of these nutrients.That said, don’t go crazy on any one nutrient either—drinking a gallon of orange juice just to boost your vitamin C probably isn’t a great idea.

Remember, the nutrition label is based off of the average adult ingesting 2,000 calories, so you may require more or less of these vitamins and minerals depending on your unique needs.

Percent Daily Value

You will notice that vitamins aren’t represented by grams, but by percents of the daily value you should be getting for each nutrient. Just as you don’t want to get too little of one vitamin, you also don’t want to get too much.

Of course, we could go on and on about all the information on the nutrition label—but checking the levels of all the nutrients and number of calories gives you more than enough information about your food. Though the label looks confusing at first, it gives us the ability to be conscious of what we are putting in our bodies — and at the end of the day, isn’t that what’s most important?

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Annalise Mantz

Annalise is a foodie, Brussels sprouts lover, grammar nerd, and political pet aficionado.

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