How to Read a Nutrition Label in Four Steps

Six of 10 people find nutrition labels confusing — now you won’t be one of them.

A new Nielsen report looking at healthy eating trends from around the world recently revealed that six out of 10 people find nutrition labels confusing. Tellingly, it also showed that 56 percent of the 25,000 who were surveyed describe themselves as overweight. North America topped every other region of the world — 56 countries total — with 63 percent of its population admitting they are overweight.

It is not exactly breaking news that the world, and particularly, America, is struggling to maintain a healthy weight. The real news is that people are working really hard to fix this without the proper tools in hand. The same report showed that the first thing people do to lose weight is to change their diet, yet it is nearly impossible to do that effectively if you don’t know how to read a food label.

Let’s fix that. I have taught hundreds of classes on label reading, helped clients navigate the complexities of grocery store, and purged pantries around Boston. Here is my four-step guide for understanding the nutrition label on any food product:

The 4-Step Guide to Reading Nutrition Labels:

Photo from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Step 1: Check the serving size and the servings per container at the top of the label, both listed at the top of the label (green). It’s important to check how many servings are in the container: if you eat two servings, then you must multiply everything on the label by two; if you eat three servings, multiply by three, etc.

In this example, the serving size is one cup, but there are two servings in the entire container. So, if you ate the whole container (two cups of this macaroni and cheese), you would need to double everything on the label (i.e. calories would be 250 x 2 = 500, total fat would be 12g x 2 =24 grams).

Step 2: Consider the calories (in the gray box): Based on your calorie needs for the day, how does this product fit into your budget?

The number of calories that you need per day varies based on gender, age, and lifestyle. The best way to determine your needs is to work with a Registered Dietitian, but for a rough estimate, try using this calorie calculator from the Mayo Clinic. Think about the serving size: will a quarter of your calories for the day be met with one serving? Would that serving be satisfying?

Step 3: Limit Total fat (especially saturated fat and trans fat), cholesterol and sodium and get enough of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals by using the ‘% Daily Value’ as a guide (outlined in purple).

People often overlook the % Daily Value column, but it can really provide you with a lot of information. It’s based on a 2,000 calories-per-day diet but regardless of your calorie budget. Twenty percent or more in considered high and 5 percent or less is considered low. Generally, you want fat (specifically, saturated fat and trans fat), cholesterol and sodium (shown in yellow) to be low, and the dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals (shown in red) to be high. Remember that this is per serving, so if you eat more than one serving, the saturated fat, for example, could go from low to high.

This tool is helpful when comparing products in the grocery store. Just make sure that the serving sizes are similar on the products you are comparing.

Step 4: Check the ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. When searching for whole grain products, the first ingredient should be “whole” (i.e. whole grain, whole wheat, whole rolled oats).

The ingredients will also help you put “sugar” in perspective. Fruit and milk products naturally contain sugar, and that will be listed in the total grams of sugar on the label. When it comes to weight management, the primary concern is “added sugars.” To know if there are added sugars you need to look at the ingredients, where they will turn up under a variety of different names. Here are some examples: Fructose, maltose, sucrose, dextrose, cane sugar, turbinado, organic sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, corn sugar, malt syrup, honey, agave nectar, and fruit juice concentrate.