The nutrition facts label is aimed at helping consumers make healthy food choices, but all the numbers and measurements can be downright confusing. It’s also full of daunting words like “sugar”, “fat” and “carbs” – oh my! How much of each nutrient should you take and which numbers should you look at first? To shed some light on nutrition to answer these questions and more, TODAY.com turned to two nutritionists: RD Jessica Cording, dietitian and author of The Little Book of Game Changers, and RD Cynthia Sass, plant-based performance coach. facts sticker so you can read with confidence.
What’s on the nutrition facts label?
To use the nutrition facts label to your advantage, you need to understand what’s out there and why. Here is a breakdown of the items in the tag.
“Serving size” and “serving per cup” are always listed at the top of the label. Portion size is not the amount you take in, but the amount most people typically eat or drink. should eat or drink. For example, a serving size of a bag of rice is ¼ cup (dry), which is the amount most people can add to their meals. Portion sizes are listed in familiar units such as cups or pieces, followed by weight in grams. The serving per container reflects the total number of servings in the entire container. Using the example of rice, there could be 10 servings per container.
Some packages may have “dual columns” or two serving side by side. The first column lists the amount per serving, while the second column lists the amount per container. This is often used in small packages, such as a single-serving package of chips or lower-calorie items such as a glass of low-calorie ice cream.
A calorie is a measure of energy. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet as the standard for most Americans, but this can vary based on size, activity level, gender, and other factors. The calories listed on the food label refer to the serving size, not the entire package.
Beneath the calories are essential nutrients that play a role in overall health, including fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. The FDA lists saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar as “nutrients that need less intake,” and lists fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium as “nutrients that need more.” Based on daily recommendations, these nutrients are listed in grams, milligrams, or % of daily value.
% daily value
The percentages on the right indicate the percentage of daily value (DV). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) sets the recommended daily amount of each nutrient. The %DV tells you how one serving of that nutrient reaches the total daily recommendation. Foods with a DV of 5% or less are considered low, while foods with a DV of 20% or less are considered high.
Although the nutritional values are not on the label itself, the ingredients are an important part of food packaging. The ingredients are listed under the nutrition panel and are required by the FDA. They are listed in descending order, with the most common being the first ingredient in the recipe.
Where do nutritional recommendations come from?
It’s surprising that some nutrients are listed in grams, others are milligrams, and all these numbers play a role in the total daily percentage. But rest assured that these measurements are not random. “The government sets recommended intakes for nutrients, known as recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) and adequate intakes (AIs), which vary by age and gender,” Sass says. The RDA is based on the estimated average requirement (EAR), or the amount that half of healthy individuals should eat to reduce their risk of disease. If there is not enough scientific evidence to determine the RDA, an AI is determined based on the intake from healthy people.
These numbers—RDA and AI—are used to set the daily percentage value. Because RDA and AI vary by age and gender, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration chooses only one value (DV) for each nutrient based on the needs of the general population,” says Sass. “It provides a frame of reference to help people understand which foods are good sources of which nutrients and which foods contribute high amounts to things that should be consumed more sparingly,” Cording says.
What do dietitians look for on a nutrition label?
It is useful to look at the nutritional value labels of all foods, but if your time is limited, dietitians say that you can pay attention to some things. According to Cording, what to look for on a nutrition label is subjective. “To some extent, whether something is “healthy” depends on the individual and their unique needs and goals,” Cording says. Someone trying to lower their LDL cholesterol may want to prioritize fiber and look for foods that are low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fatty acids. Someone focused on supporting bone health will want to pay attention to their calcium and vitamin D content.
Sass takes a different approach. “The first thing I look at is the ingredient list—I think that’s the best way to assess whether any food is healthy, and it helps put the numbers in the Nutrition Facts panel in perspective,” says Sass. For example, a certain food made with nuts may be high in fat but also rich in calcium and fiber. Browsing the ingredients helps you evaluate where that fat content is coming from.
“After reviewing the ingredient list, I think it’s important to look at all the numbers as a set, rather than focusing on a single value such as calories or grams of carbs, sugar or protein,” adds Sass. “This oversimplification of nutrition has led to some major health problems, such as accepting highly processed foods as healthy because they are low in fat and avoiding naturally nutrient-rich foods because they contain carbohydrates,” says Sass.
Both dietitians agree that it’s best not to have an “all or nothing” mentality when evaluating foods. If a food has a few teaspoons of added sugar and also provides an impressive %DV for essential nutrients like fiber, iron and magnesium, it’s worth having in your diet, says Sass.
However, if you have a health condition or are unsure of which nutrients are important to your lifestyle, consider meeting with a registered dietitian.