Making Sense of Nutrition Facts Labels

Compiled by: Althea Burke


“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better” Maya Angelou

In my own quest to understand Nutrition Facts labels, I consulted several sources. This post is a synthesis of my personally ranked top three articles on the same topic authored (or reviewed) by Olivia Tarantino, Taylor Wolfram MS, RD, LDN and The U.S Food & Drug Administration

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  • Check serving size to determine how many serving sizes there are in the food package.
  • The size of the serving on the food package influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label.


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  • Calories matter. But, the number of calories you should consume will vary based on your diet.
  • The Nutritional Facts label is based on a 2,000-calorie diet

Try this: Aim for: 300-600 calories per meal, and 130-150 calories per snack. 400 calories/serving is HIGH, 100 calories/serving is MODERATE, 40 calories/serving is LOW

*Note By 2018, FDA will remove “Calories from Fat” label because they found that the type of fat is more important than the amount of it.

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  • Use the Nutrition Facts label to help limit those nutrients you want to cut back on (Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium) but also to increase those nutrients you may need to consume more of (Dietary Fiber, Vitamins, Calcium, Iron, Potassium etc.)
  • Sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts label include naturally occurring sugars as well as added sugars. By 2018 updated nutrition labels will feature an “Added Sugar” line that will recommend a maximum 50g of added sugar a day.

Try this: Leave trans fat foods on the shelf, limit Saturated Fats, read the ingredients list to determine approximate content of Polyunsaturated Fats (avoid vegetable oils like soy, corn, sunflower, safflower and palm oil) and increase Monounsaturated Fat, which are considered healthy fats.


  •  % Daily Value are based on 2,000 calorie diet and are for the entire day, not just one meal or snack.
  • The % Daily Value column will not add up vertically to 100%. Each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirements for that nutrient.
  • You can read the % Daily Value high from low, and can determine which nutrients contribute a lot or a little to your daily recommended allowance.
  • Low is 5% or less (aim low in Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium) and high is 20% or more (aim high in Vitamins, Minerals and Fiber).
  • The Daily Value (not to be confused with % Daily Value) is on all large food labels and does not change from product to product. Daily Value guidelines are general dietary advice that is not about specific foods, and is for all Americans from public health experts.

*Note: Unless food package claims product is “high in protein” you may not see protein’s % Daily Value listed.

Also, No daily reference value is available for sugars because no recommendation has been made for the total amount to consume daily. (Check the ingredient list for specifics on added sugars.)


Ingredients are listed in order of weight or quantity. But, oftentimes manufacturers disguise added sugars using a variety of sugar types (I wrote about this in a previous post, read it here). Skim through the first ten ingredients to determine what is in your food. A short list with basic and understandable (as opposed to science-y) terminology is for the most part indicative of a product that’s free of non-nutritive additives.