The Nutrition Facts table is on the side of most packaged foods. It’s usually found close to the ingredient listing.
The purpose of it is to help consumers make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, they should be able to choose healthier foods, right?
Whether you like the Nutrition Facts table or not, let’s make sure you get the most out of it, since it’s here to stay!
Here’s my four-step crash course on reading the Nutrition Facts table.
Step 1: Serving Size
The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts table is to note the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. So, it’s tricky.
All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. So, for example in the label we see above (the one on the right), the serving size is 1 cup. This means when you eat 1 cup of this food, you’ll be eating 7 grams of fat, 30 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of protein, etc. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.
You may purchase this product and essentially memorize that one serving contains these particular nutrient values. However, if you purchase another brand – that brand may have the serving size be 2 cups. WOAH! If you aren’t careful and don’t notice that EVERYthing has doubled on that label, you may be under the impression that you can eat twice as much of the second brand. NO! Not the case at all.
In Canada, in the next few years (between 2017-2022), serving sizes will be more consistent between similar foods. This will make it easier to compare foods. The new labels will also have more realistic serving sizes to reflect the amount that people eat in one sitting, and not be artificially small. I’ve not heard if this is the case with U.S. labels.
Let’s use an example – plain, unsalted walnuts from Costco.
As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30 g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.
FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts).
Step 2: % Daily Value
The % Daily Value (%DV) is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. Ideally, you will get 100% DV for each nutrient every day. This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day.
NOTE: Since children are smaller and have different nutritional needs if a type of food is intended solely for children under the age of 4, then those foods use a child’s average nutrition needs for the %DV.
The %DV is a guideline, not a rigid rule. It means most of the population will not be DEFICIENT in this particular nutrient if this DV is met.
You don’t need to add all of your %DV up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot.
NOTE: Not every nutrient has a %DV. You can see it’s missing for things like cholesterol, sugar, and protein. This is because there isn’t an agreed “official” %DV for that nutrient. The good news is that the new Nutrition Facts tables will include a %DV for sugar. Keep your eyes out for that.
Step 3: Middle of the table (e.g. Calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, and protein)
Calories are pretty straight forward. Look at the walnuts label, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts has 200 calories.
Fat is bolded for a reason. That 19 g of fat (29% DV) is total fat.That includes the non-bolded items underneath it. Here, 19 g of total fat includes 1.5 g saturated fat, (19 g – 1.5 g = 17.5 g) unsaturated fat, and 0 g trans fat. (Yes, unsaturated fats including mono- and poly-unsaturated are not on the label, so you need to do a quick subtraction).
Cholesterol, sodium, and potassium are all measured in mg. Ideally, aim for around 100% of potassium and sodium each day. It’s easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made/packaged foods, restaurant foods, or snacks. Keep an eye on this number if sodium can be a problem for you (e.g. if your doctor mentioned it, if you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, etc.).
Carbohydrate, like fat, is bolded because it is total carbohydrates. It includes the non-bolded items underneath it like fiber, sugar, and starch (not shown). Here, 30 g of walnuts contain 3 g of carbohydrates; that 3 g are all fiber. There is no sugar or starch. And as you can see, 3 g of fiber is 12% of your daily value for fiber.
Proteins, like calories, are pretty straight forward as well. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts contains 5 g of protein.
Step 4: Bottom of the table (e.g. vitamins & minerals)
The vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. The new labels will list potassium, calcium, and iron. Yes, potassium will drop from the middle of the table to the bottom, and both vitamins A & C will become optional.
Manufacturers can add other vitamins and minerals to the bottom of their Nutrition Facts table (this is optional). And you’ll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others do.
I hope this crash course in the Nutrition Facts table was helpful. While you can take it or leave it when it comes to making food decisions, it’s here to stay. And it will change slightly over the next few years.
One of the best things about reading labels is truly knowing what you are putting in your body. Many food-tracking apps, such as myfitnesspal, have the ability to scan the bar code so this information gets transferred right into your food log! All you have to do is tell it how many servings you ate. It’s pretty nifty.
And don’t forget my general rule for SUGAR on these labels….If it has more than 10 grams of sugar per serving…consider it CANDY! Many health bars, cereals, etc are marketed as “healthy” when, in reality, they are the opposite! So, labels are of tremendous value if you are truly interested in optimizing nutrition for health.
Take a look at a couple labels of processed foods that are marketed as healthy and look at their labels!
My book Weight Loss that Works: Secrets to Restoring Confidence and Reclaiming Your Body is now available in the KINDLE STORE! Woot!
Recipe (walnuts): Delicious and Super-Easy Walnut Snack
8 walnut halves
4 dates, pitted
Make a “date sandwich” by squeezing each date between two walnut halves.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Try with pecans instead.