Mind & Body

Here's How to Read a Food Label

Food labels can be complicated. Even if you know what you're looking for, the loads of percentages and measurement units and SAT words can make it hard to get a complete picture of exactly what you're putting in your body. We'll break the FDA's text-heavy diagram into easily digestible serving sizes to help you understand what your food is telling you.

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On the back of your package of Pop-Tarts, or your organic green juice, or that frozen meal you're about to pop in the microwave, you'll see all the nutritional information that the FDA requires food manufacturers to include on their products. In a tidy box are the nutrition facts, which lay out the number of calories and nutrients in a given serving of the food. Elsewhere — usually right below — you'll see the ingredients list, which includes each ingredient of a food in descending order by weight. Here's how to read each of these sections.

Nutrition Facts

Serving Size

This is the amount of food that's usually eaten in one sitting — supposedly. That's rarely the case, as anyone who's been shocked to see a serving size of two cookies or a half-cup of ice cream knows. That's because these serving sizes are based on what people ate in 1993. Thanks to new regulations, you should see more realistic serving sizes in the future: For example, a serving of ice cream is now considered two-thirds of a cup.

Calories

Put simply, this describes the amount of energy that's in a single serving. The whole label is based on an average daily intake of 2,000 calories. The amount you should eat, however, varies based on your age, size, activity level, and individual goals. Often, people stop reading at this number. Be aware, however, that calories are not created equal: it requires more energy to burn through a calorie of protein than to burn through a calorie of sugar.

Nutrients

This is where things get complicated. The FDA requires all manufacturers to list total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. How much of each you should consume is broken down later in this article, but for an easy rule of thumb, see the next section.

Percent Daily Value

Next to each nutrient, you'll see two numbers. On the left is the amount of the nutrient in grams. On the right, that amount is translated into the total percentage of your daily recommended amount of that nutrient. For example, if the label lists "Total Fat" as 10 grams and 15% Daily Value, that means that eating the food will put you 15 percent of the way toward the FDA's recommended daily fat limit for someone eating 2,000 calories a day.

Nutrients to Shoot For

Here's how much of each nutrient the FDA recommends you aim for if you're taking in 2,000 calories a day.

  • Total fat: 65 grams. The label breaks this section down into other types of fat as well. You should limit your saturated fat intake to 20 grams, and cut out all trans fat, if you can. Unsaturated fats are so-called "healthy" fats that you generally want to get more of. Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol in your diet doesn't really affect the levels of cholesterol in your blood, so you don't need to worry much about this nutrient unless your doctor has told you otherwise.

  • Total carbohydrates: 300 grams. The carbohydrate section also includes dietary fiber, which has a recommended daily value of 20 grams, and sugars, which are ... complicated. This number includes naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. While there's no FDA-recommended amount for the former, the American Heart Association suggests consuming no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day for women and 37 grams for men. Luckily, future nutrition facts labels will include a separate section for added sugars.

  • Protein: The FDA recommends getting 50 grams of protein on a 2,000-calorie diet. If that sounds high to you, rest assured that most Americans get plenty of protein. If that sounds low to you, you've probably heard the benefits of a high-protein diet when it comes to losing weight and building muscle. Those benefits are real, as long as you don't go overboard. Getting too much protein can come at the cost of other important nutrients and can overtax the kidneys if you're prone to kidney problems.

  • Sodium: Like cholesterol, the science on sodium has changed in the last few years. The CDC recommends that Americans consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and aim for something more like 1,500 milligrams. But in 2014, an analysis of previous research found that there's actually such a thing as getting too little sodium, and suggests that the CDC's limits are way too low. That study found that the healthiest amount of sodium was between 2,645 and 4,945 milligrams per day. If you'd like to know your ideal sodium intake, it's a good idea to just ask your doctor.

Ingredients List

Below the big bold box of nutrition facts, you'll find a list of ingredients. These are laid out in descending order by weight — that is, the first ingredient takes up the greatest portion of the food's weight, and the last takes up the least. In that way, you can use the order as a rough estimate for how much of each ingredient there is: a handy way to know if your "healthy" juice is loaded up with sugar. In fact, added sugar comes by many different names, which you can see on this handy resource from the University of California San Francisco.

Another handy rule of thumb for ingredients lists? Just because you can't pronounce it doesn't make it unhealthy, and just because it's a word you know doesn't make it healthy. It might look nicer on the label, but uncured bacon with "cultured celery juice" acts the same way in your body as cured bacon with nitrites. Likewise, "natural" and "artificial" ingredients are often identical at a molecular level — it's just how they were derived that's different. If you'd like to know more about which ingredients pose a health risk, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has another handy resource. Happy eating!

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For the gold standard on healthy eating, check out "The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food and Nutrition Guide" by Roberta Larson Duyff. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer October 19, 2018

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