Dissecting the Nutrition Facts Food Label

Food Label

Let’s learn the down and dirty of the NFFL

We learned the importance of the Nutrition Facts Food Label in the last post. So now let’s review the 6 major steps to effectively reading and using the food label to your advantage.

Let’s check out this image from the FDA‘s website on the 6 major steps:

food label

Step One: Serving Size

First of all, did you know that every nutrient listed on a food label is only the amount for that specific serving size? It’s not always for the entire package – which is deceiving sometimes. That means the size of the serving on the package is directly related to the number of calories listed on the label

Standardization of serving sizes makes for easier comparison of many different foods (1 cup, pieces, metric unit – grams). Look here for both the serving size and the number of servings in the package.

So it’s time to ask yourself “how many servings are you consuming? 1 serving? 2 servings?”  You must multiply your calories by the number of servings you are eating!

Here is a label for a loaf of bread:

Food Label

If you were going to make a full sandwich and use 2 slices of bread, you will multiply everything on this label by 2. That’s 120 calories, 26 total carbohydrates, 4 grams of protein, etc.

Step Two: Calories and Calories from Fat

The term calorie means how we measure the amount of energy you get from a serving of food. It’s no secret that many Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting the recommended intakes for a number of different nutrients

REMEMBER: The number of servings you eat determines the number of calories you actually eat

Let’s check out this food label for a brandless Macaroni and Cheese

food label

You can plainly see there are 250 calories in 1 cup of this product. What you can find out in the next line is that almost 50% of those calories are coming from fat. That is a lot! (and it’s not really that surprising, seeing as we are looking at Mac N Cheese).

We will learn more about the future of food labels, but it’s important to know that the Calories from Fat will soon be gone from the food label.

Here is a helpful hint: There are 9 calories in every 1 gram of fat. So if you take the Total fat of 12 grams and multiply by 9 you get…..drumroll…108 calories (2 calories off probably due to rounding on the Total Fat calculation).

Another helpful hint:

  • 40 calories is considered “Low Calorie”
  • 100 calories is considered “Moderate Calorie”
  • 400 or more calories is considered “High Calorie”

Step Three: Nutrients to Limit

The nutrients listed at the top of this section are key nutrients that impact your health and the ones you should pay attention to. The nutrients listed first are the ones Americans generally get enough of, or sometimes too much of. These are key players for heart health.

You can see that the healthy fats are not listed, but through the process of elimination, you can calculate a number of unsaturated fats. (12 grams of total fat – 3 grams of saturated fat – 1.5 grams of trans fats = 7.5 grams of unsaturated, or healthy, fats)

food label

IMPORTANT: Health Experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.

Step Four: Nutrients to Strive For

The following blue nutrients are those we aim for daily consumption. Most Americans don’t get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron in their diets. I think you should aim for 35 grams of fiber every day! The best resource to see how much fiber you are getting is by checking out the food label adding it up!

Food Label

Getting enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases/conditions.

Step Five: The Footnote

Food Label

In my opinion, this should be Step 6 but we will go with what the FDA says and talk about the Footnote prior to the %DV.

Note the * after the heading “% Daily Value” on the Nutrition Facts label. This tells you “%DVs are based on a 2000 calorie diet” This must be present on all labels and then the remaining information varies depending on the package size.

If the full footnote is on a label, it is the same for every label – this information doesn’t change from product to product because it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans and is not label-specific.

Step Six: The Percent Daily Value (%DV) Column

The % Daily Values (%DV) are based on the Daily Value Recommendations for key nutrients but only for a 2,000 calorie diet, not 2,500 (hence the information in the Footnote).

These percentages are best used as a frame of reference whether or not you consume more or less than 2,000 calories. The percentages help you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a specific nutrient.


The %DV column doesn’t add up to 100% – each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirements for that nutrient

***5% DV or less is considered low

  • Try aiming for 5% or less on those foods you want to limit (i.e. saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium)

***20% DV or more is considered high

  • Try aiming for 20% or more for those nutrients that you want to consume in greater amounts (fiber, calcium, etc)

food label

Let’s use the above label for an example. Look at the amount of Total Fat in one serving listed on the sample nutrition label. Is 18% DV contributing a lot or a little to your fat limit of 100% DV? What if you ate the whole package?

If you ate the whole package, 2 servings, you would double that amount, eating 36% of your daily allowance for total fat

Coming just from one food, that amount leaves you with 64% of your fat allowance for ALL of the other foods you eat that day, snacks and drinks included.

I know %DV can be confusing, so please contact me with questions!

You can easily compare one product or brand to a similar product as long as you make sure the serving sizes are similar. Use the %DV to help you make dietary trade-offs with other foods throughout the day

You don’t have to give up a favorite food to have a healthy diet! When a food you like is high in fat, balance it with foods that are low in fat at other times of the day

Pay attention to how much you eat so that the total amount of fat for the day stays below 100% DV

Foods That Don’t Have %DV

  • Trans Fats are not listed on the GRAS list and it is now recommended to not consume any Trans Fats in the daily diet
  • Protein: Most American eat more protein than they need, so a %DV is not required on the label.
    • A %DV is required on the label if a claim is made for protein, such as “high in protein”
    • Unless food is meant for use by infants or children under the age of 4, a %DV is not required – recent evidence suggests that protein intake is not a public health concern for adults and children older than 4
  • Sugars: No daily reference value has been established for sugars because no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day

Extra: Ingredients List

The ingredients list is just underneath the Nutrition Facts Food Label. Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. The ingredients are in descending order by weight and those in the largest amounts are first.

This information is particularly helpful to individuals with food sensitivities, those who wish to avoid pork or shellfish or limit added sugars or people who prefer vegetarian eating.

This is also where you will find Allergens listed.

The More You Know

I hope you are realizing how amazing food labels are. The manufacturers provide you with so much information, it’s crazy! It’s now your turn to use this to your advantage to live a healthier life.

What’s next? I’m glad you are asking. Changes are coming, with approval, and will roll out next summer. The third post in this mini-series is about the future of food labeling! So exciting y’all 😉