Part I: Reading a Food Label

March 7, 2011

Reading and understanding a food label is tough, even for the best and brightest. Not only do you have to be able to read the numbers and words, but you have to know how to interpret them and use the information to influence your diet.

Servings: The first think you’ll see under “Nutrition Facts” is what a serving is (i.e. 1/2 cup, 2 tablespoons) and how many there are in the package.  So, if you look at a jar of tomato sauce, the serving size may be 1/2 cup and there may be 6 servings in a jar = 3 cups in the entire jar.

A serving on a food label is NOT always the same as a serving as recommended by the government in the Dietary Guidelines and MyPyramid. Here is an example: 1 serving of whole grain from the Dietary Guidelines is 1 slice of whole grain bread, but a serving of whole grain bread according to the food package may be 2 slices.

Calories: Under serving information, there will be the number of calories PER SERVING. If a bag of chips has 150 calories, that is how many calories there are in one serving. If the serving is 14 chips, and you have 28, then you’ve eaten 300 calories. If you eat more than the serving size on the package, you eat more calories.

% Daily Value: Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, the percent of daily value for each nutrient on the label is listed on the right-hand side. For the nutrients to limit, you want to aim for <5% per serving. For the nutrients to eat more of, you want to aim for >20% per serving.

  • Nutrients to Limit: These include saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, total sugar, and sodium.
  • Nutrients to Eat more of: Research shows Americans aren’t getting enough fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, or calcium and that eating more of these nutrients can help improve health.

Nutrients to Limit: Total fat (in grams) per serving is stated, and then broken down into saturated and trans fat (per serving). Sometimes, poly- and mono- unsaturated fats are noted but there is no legal rule making companies do this, so it done by choice. You want to aim for foods that are low (<5% per serving) in saturated fat, and have 0% trans fat/serving. If you have a serving of a food with 12% saturated fat, you have 88% of fat allowance for the day remaining. If you have two servings (24% sat fat),  you have 76% fat allowance left for the day.

Did you know? If a food has less than 0.5 g/serving of trans-fat, the product does not legally need to claim it has trans-fat. So, to really find out if a food has trans-fat, check out the ingredients list. If there is “partially hydrogenated oil” or “fully hydrogenated oil”, it has trans fat.

Cholesterol- Americans only need 300 mg/day or less. Again, aim for <5% per serving of the daily value.

Sodium is a big one! We’ve heard a lot about how sodium may increase the risk for hypertension. In fact, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines decreased the amount of salt we should all get per day. Unfortunately, the target (2300 mg/day for most people or 1500mg/day if 51+, black, or hypertensive) is very hard to follow. Most of us get a large amount of salt not by sprinkling it our food, but rather by eating processed foods. Manufacturers put salt in foods like  bread (!), soup, frozen dinners, chips, salsas, and desserts to preserve them and increase their shelf-life.

Stay tuned! On Thursday, we’ll finish our analysis by discussing nutrients to eat more of and how to read an ingredients list. We’ll also provide a comparison between food labels to show you what to look for when choosing foods.


United States. Department of Agriculture. 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Executive Summary. Accessed at on 3/4/11.

United States. Food and Drug Administration. How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Panel. Accessed at on 3/4/11.

Entry Filed under: Nutrition. .

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