How many of you have ever read a nutrition label? Let alone understanding all of it. It may not be for you, but if you are looking to understand a little more about what is in your food, then press ahead.
Since this isn’t history class, skipping through some of the history of how we got to what is today’s standard of nutrition labels in the US. With an increase in consumption of processed foods by families, in 1973 the nutrition label was created by the FDA requiring substantiation of health claims. Shortly following this in 1990 the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed. Creating the mandatory labeling of food and regulating health claims.
Serving Size & Servings Per
The first section is likely the most important of the nutrition label in my brain. The rest of the label follows suit from this first section. Before looking at the rest and assuming that something is relatively low calorie, you will want to read this section. Directly underneath the title “Nutrition Facts”, this is where they tell you how many servings are in the package.
Why Is This So Important?
Well let’s consider this. How many times have you looked at the back, and in the big boldness of section 2 it says that the product is only 180 calories (per serving)? Running with that, you consume half a bag. What if you looked at section 1 of the bag and realized that there were 10 servings in the bag? This means you just consumed 900 calories
10 Servings x 1/2 = 5 Servings x 180 Calories = 900 Calories
That is more than a hamburger, and less filling to boot. This is a real example of a Lay’s plain potato chips bag. It’s even worse when I tell you that in section 1 it also states that 1 serving is roughly 11 chips. So, to keep this snack “healthier” at 180 calories you can only consume 11 chips. Doesn’t sound like much of a smart health option now does it?
Calories Per Serving
I know, I know, I am going to blow you away when I tell you that the “calories” is actually “calories per serving” and often requires some of that pesky math. This section tends to be the first and sometimes only section that the majority of people look at. How could you not though? This text is printed larger to draw your eyes on purpose with BIG BOLD LETTERS.
For example, a Chips Ahoy! serving is two cookies at 140 calories per serving, with 13 serving per container. Brings a whole new light to eating a sleeve of the cookies at once doesn’t it? Use section 1 & 2 together to help make more informed decisions about whether this is a good-sized snack or meal, and if it is going to be healthy at that size. All this goes into making good decisions around food that fill you up and provide you the right kind of energy.
Nutrients Per Serving in General
Now it is time to talk about the nutrients in those servings. What you put into your body matters just as much as how much you put into it. This section highlights the big 3 nutrients: Fat, Carbs, and Protein each divided into the subgroups that make up these nutrient counts. When reading this section, it is important to note that percentages are largely useless. The percentage is based off an average calorie count for, but more on this later. For now, ignore the percentages and focus on the amount in grams. Pro Tip: Using My Fitness Pal will help you more accurately track your calories.
Have you ever wondered what the difference between saturated fat, trans fat, and unsaturated fat? First things first, in 2019, inside the US, all foods should no longer have any trans-fat in them, as they were to be completely phased out by 2018. Meaning we should only be seeing saturated and unsaturated fats. These two are typically plotted against each other in the good fats and bad fats discussions
These are the fats that usually get the bad wrap for fat as a nutrient in general. Pro Tip: Items that are solids at room temperature tend to be saturated fats. A good example of this is butter. However, if you are eating food, it is not possible to eliminate saturated fats from your diet. Regardless, don’t get caught up in trying to eliminate them completely. Instead focus on consuming more unsaturated fats.
The quote on quote illustrious “good fats”. The Mariah Carey’s of the lipid world. Thicc but in the way you want. When “good fats” are consumed correctly they have numerous positive health effects. Pro Tip: Items that are liquids at room temperature tend to be unsaturated fats. A good example of this is olive oil.
This is always going to be one of the most important yet trickiest sections of the nutrition label. This section is largely important because there a lot of diets that center around consuming less or more carbohydrates, they are the body’s go-to energy source, and often the origin of weight problems for many. I’d like to state that carbs are not the enemy, but nor are they the only reason people struggle with weight. There is an overwhelmingly various amount of reasons that people can struggle with weight.
The important thing to take away here is getting past the tricky carb math. If you look at the carbs on the nutrition label you may notice that the dietary fiber and the sugars don’t add up into the total amount of carbs that are being shown. The reason for this is “sugar alcohols” and “other sugars” tend to be hidden categories. This is also coupled with the fact that binding and thickening agents are not required to be listed on the nutrition label.
Covering all the bases here, dietary fiber is not inherently bad. In fact, many people struggle to consume enough fiber in their diet. Dietary fiber does not get processed like other carbs and is responsible for helping make you regular. Squatty Potty sold separately. In a couple different diets, it is common to subtract out dietary fiber from the carb calorie count, especially in the ketogenic diet.
As you may or may not know, when the body ingests carbs it turns them into sugars. Hence, the reason that sugars are listed under carbs.
Vitamins & Minerals
No, not the Fred Flintstones chewables. After reading the nutrients per serving comes the vitamins and minerals section. Companies are required to report these 2 vitamins and 2 things by law: 
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
When vitamins are added, or there are health claims about the vitamins or minerals, they must be listed. However, food companies can voluntarily list other vitamins on their own. Unfortunately, there is no real way to tell whether they were added, or naturally occurring and voluntarily listed. Beware large health claims regarding vitamins and minerals. While the FDA does regulate labeling and health claims allowed, general statements and statements creating correlation to health issues are allowed. It is important to substantiate health claims made by companies and how general they may be.
As we have previously talked, the percentages in this section will, in most cases, will be unrelated to your diet. Let’s talk about this a little further in the next section.
Finally, time to answer that pesky question about the percentages and why they don’t matter. Just under vitamins and minerals, in tiny lettering, there is a note. This note states that all percentages are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Now how many of you are eating exactly 2000 calories every day? If you raised your hand, I will need to see you after class. The number of 2000 calories was based off a median amount of calories consumed across an average between men, women, and children in the early 90’s when the food label was finally put into practice.
Now here is the problem with that. Not everyone’s calorie intake is going to be the same. Even if two people had the exact same schedule their calorie intake wouldn’t need to be same. As our understanding of nutrition and biology grows, we have learned and continue to learn that everyone is bio-diverse requiring different amounts of nutrients to do the exact same things. Not to mention, throwing in weight training, sports, mentally rigorous jobs or school, sleep patterns, body composition, and so on. I will spare you the speech at this point, and move on to say that you are truly unique and special. All these things will also play a role on calorie and nutrient intake. So, for now use the grams and don’t worry about the percentages on the nutrition label.
Ingredients: What’s Really in This Food
Ingredients are perhaps the trickiest part of the entire nutrition label. We’ll get into those in just a minute though. The Ingredients are listed on the label in order from largest amount to smallest. These means if you pick up something like mayo, and in the first few ingredients are canola oil and olive oil, you can swap that out for a mayo where the larger ingredients are things like eggs and other healthy fats.
Undoubtedly, you have noticed that this section often looks like a scientific essay more than a list of ingredients. This is where the trickery comes into play. Often ingredients may be listed by their scientific names in order to keep you from understanding what is in them. Pro Tip: Google anything you don’t understand on in this section, there is often a quick answer available.
Ingredients with Several Names
There are over 56 different names for sugar on ingredients labels. The following are the most common names for sugar:
- Anhydrous dextrose
- brown sugar
- cane crystals
- cane sugar
- corn sweetener
- high-fructose corn syrup
- corn syrup solids
- crystal dextrose
- corn syrup
- evaporated cane juice
- fructose sweetener
- fruit juice concentrate
- high-fructose corn syrup
- honey, liquid fructose
- malt syrup, maple syrup
- pancake syrup
- raw sugar
- white sugar
- Fructose is fruit and vegetable sugar; lactose is milk sugar; and maltose is grain sugar. 
Markedly, salt itself is not bad for you, however too much of it can cause excess water retention. The following are the most common names for salt:
- sodium benzoate
- monosodium glutamate (MSG)
THE 4:4:9 Rule
I believe it to be likely that most of you have never heard of this rule. So, what is it? It’s the calorie base for 1 gram of Protein, Carbs, and Fats. Take one more look at the nutrition label. Surely, you might wonder how they got their calorie total in section 2 from the grams shown in section 3. After all, the math just doesn’t add up unless you use the 4:4:9 rule. Math is always easier to see than explained. Take a quick look at the example below using the nutrition label previously shown:
- Fat = 8g —> Fats = 9 cals/gram —> 8 x 9 = 72 Calories
- Carbs = 37g —> Carbs = 4 cals/gram —> 37 x 4 = 148 Calories
- Proteins = 3g —> Proteins = 4 cals/gram —> 3 x 4 = 36 Calories
- Total Calories = 256 Calories
Comparatively, the total comes out to 256 calories instead of 230 calories. No, we didn’t mess anything up. There are a couple things at play here.
The 4:4:9 rule is a standard by the FDA for consistency
- calorie math is not an exact science.
- Some labels account for digestibility of certain nutrients
- Manufacturing companies have a 20% +/- “margin of error” on the calorie counts
Don’t panic about the 3rd reason though! Back to point 1, calorie math isn’t an exact science, so a margin of error helps make up some ground. Secondly, there is a portion of foods that may use that to fluff their calories instead of trimming them. On average you are more than likely breaking even across the board.
Hopefully all this helps arm you with the basic knowledge of how to read the nutrition label and make more informed decisions on what you consume. After all your body is a temple, and I know you believe that too because you’re here.
To sum everything up:
- First read the calories per serving
- Second read the amount of servings per container and decide if that serving will be enough for you without blowing out your calorie intake for your other meals
- After that read the nutrients section and make sure that they align with your macronutrients
- Following that read the ingredients section and determine that they are good wholesome ingredients
- Lastly read the vitamins and minerals section
- ^FDA.(2018/09/20). Guidance for Industry: “Guide for Developing and Using Data Bases for Nutrition Labeling”.Docket Number FDA-2013-S-0610. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/guidance-industry-guide-developing-and-using-data-bases-nutrition-labeling
- ^Elizabeth Brown.(2019/12/06).“Different Words For Sugar on Food Labels”. https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/different-words-sugar-food-labels-8373.html
- ^Adda Bjarnadottir.(2017/06/03).“The 56 Most Common Names for Sugar (Some Are Tricky)” https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/56-different-names-for-sugar
- ^American Heart Association.(2017/06/03). “Understanding Ingredients on Food Labels.”https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/understanding-ingredients-on-food-labels
- ^National Academy of Sciences.(2010).Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Phase I Report.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209859/
- ^Laurie L. Dove “Where did the 2,000-calorie diet come from?” 26 June 2015.
- ^MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.(2019/07/31). “Food Labeling”.https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002459.htm
- ^Barbara Gordon. (2017/12/08). “The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label”.https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/the-basics-of-the-nutrition-facts-label
- ^Penny Klatell. (2012, October 15). “What Do Total Carbohydrate And Added Sugar On The Nutrition Label Mean?”.https://eatouteatwell.com/what-do-total-carbohydrate-and-added-sugar-mean-on-the-nutrition-label/
- ^(2018/05/18). Guidance for Industry: “Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat)”.https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/final-determination-regarding-partially-hydrogenated-oils-removing-trans-fat
- ^American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) Staff.(2015/04/28).“Some Food Labels Probably Overestimate Calorie Count”.https://www.acsh.org/news/2015/04/28/some-food-labels-probably-overestimate-calorie-content