The easiest way to decipher nutrition labels

by | Feb 15, 2016 | Last updated Mar 22, 2023

“Low fat!” “Reduced sugar!” “Protein plus!” Food labels are constantly shouting at us from the shelves, advertising certain “special” aspects of their product. What do they all mean? And are they all good?

Nutrition labels are poorly understood by most people, and for good reason: the less you can understand, the less choosy you will be, thus benefitting the product that has the flashiest label. But in today’s health-conscious world, you’re probably more than curious about what you’re eating. This guide will help you navigate the nutrition facts and ingredient lists on foods, allowing you to make an informed decision about your food.

Nutrition Facts

Serving size: Serving sizes are standardized, but that doesn’t mean they’re intuitive. Unless you’re eating a pre-portioned food, chances are you’re eating more than the serving size. To figure out how much you’re eating, use either a measuring cup or a food scale to measure the portion you normally eat. Then compare it to the nutrition label. You might realize that your cereal portion is accounting for a few more calories than you planned. For accurate calories and nutrition, measure your food according to the serving size.

Fats: Fats have earned a bit of a bad rap but fats are essential to brain, organ, and heart function – so yes, you need it! It’s an unfortunate coincidence that it shares the name as the fat on our bodies, which has likely caused it’s bad reputation. (Read more about healthy sources of fat here.) In terms of fat, here’s what you need to know about nutrition labels: Watch for saturated and trans fats. You should always try to avoid trans fats; saturated fats aren’t healthy, but you can have some in your diet in low quantities. While fat isn’t bad for you, you shouldn’t be getting more than 20-30 grams of it per meal, so watch for labels that are super high in fat – chances are, there’s a lot of sugar too.

Cholesterol & Sodium: You want to limit both sodium and cholesterol intake for the sake of heart health, as both can increase risk of heart disease. Talk to your doctor to discuss specific numbers for each.

Fiber: The average diet is fiber-deficient. Fiber amounts are always located beneath carbohydrates on nutrition labels. Fiber helps regulate bowel movements, as well as cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Women should aim for 20-30 grams per day, while men should aim for 30-40 grams.

Vitamins: Most Americans do not get enough iron, calcium, or vitamins A and C in their diets. These vitamins help maintain general health and prevent against issues like anemia or osteoporosis. While some processed foods contain these vitamins, you should try to get most of these nutrients from fruits and vegetables.

Percent Daily Values: Once upon a time when most Americans ate around a 2,000 calorie diet without really trying, these daily values may have been more helpful. If you’re really lost as to how much of what nutrient you should be getting, they can be helpful. But as every person has different needs and requirements in their personal diets, this sort of generalization is not the most useful reference. If you’re curious about your personal needs, talk to a nutritionist, or do some research online to figure out your goals. Noom can help with calorie goals, but if you’re concerned about particular nutrients, it’s always best to refer to an expert.

Ingredient List: Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. This means that the ingredient that weighs the most (and therefore is in highest concentration) will be listed first. This can be helpful when trying to discern what exactly you’re eating. Trying to cut down on sugar? If sugar is listed as one of the first three ingredients, try to avoid the food. As a general rule, the less ingredients, the better.

Sugar: Sugar gets its own category because, well, it’s one of the most negative effectors of health out there. You never want to eat a product with too much added sugar. Take a look at this guide to get familiar with all the types of sugar out there. Keep in mind that naturally-occurring sugar, like you find in fruit, are not listed on these labels. (Naturally occurirng sugar is not equivalent to table sugar because of the nutrients and fiber that it comes along with.)

Zero Calorie Products: Here’s the truth: there is no such thing as a calorie-free food. Any food, no matter how crazy the ingredients are, will contain calories. Some foods get labelled as “zero calorie” because the serving size listed on the nutrition label does, in fact, offer zero calories. But if you consume more than the serving size, chances are you’re now absorbing some calories. The calories won’t be too significant in most cases, but it’s something to consider. Additionally, these zero-calorie foods confuse your body and can lead you to eat more, because your body is trying to process calories that aren’t there. Try stick to simple, whole foods, and ignore the fake products. We know they can be tempting, but all foods found in nature will be better for you than any man-made food product, every time.