Nutrition Labels: What you should know

You know that cleverly placed little label on the packaging of every food or drink that you purchase? You know, the one that looks like some sort of algebra project gone wrong? Well this information is the key to understanding every aspect of nutrition. If you are looking to set up any sort of diet plan, it is CRUCIAL that you understand what nutrition labels tell you, and how you can relate it to improving your overall nutrition plan.

The average consumer takes the entire concept of a nutrition label out of proportion. It truly isn’t as complicated as some may make it seem. Many people simply don’t want to know the truth behind all of these dietary numbers. Let’s dive into some of the basics.

Serving Size – The attention grabber

So you have taken a peak at that intimidating little nutrition label on the back of the bag of your M&M’s. Just under the “Nutrition Facts” title, you will first see the serving size. This simply tells you how many servings are in the entire package of whatever you are eating. For M&M’s, the serving size is ½ of a box. Thus, there are TWO servings in the bag.

Before we continue any further, you must take every number listed in the “Amount per Serving” section and double it in this case. You would be amazed at how many people think that they are only ingesting 260 calories if they eat an entire bag of Doritos. What they fail to realize is that there are typically around 12 servings in that bag. 260×12 will give you… oh geez…

Under the serving information, you will be greeted with the dreaded (drum roll)… CALORIES! Don’t let this intimidate you, but be sure it creates an awareness within your diet. This number can be misleading as well. Again, this calorie number is on a ‘per serving’ basis.

Calories are simply a measure of the amount of energy that we obtain from the food we eat. Under the calorie number, you will see “Fat Calories”. These are NOT the calories you want. In our M&M’s example, we would notice that there are 220 calories per serving, with 110 calories coming from fat. If you were to eat that entire box, you can go ahead and double both of those numbers, as there are two servings in the box. The numbers can get out of hand quickly, huh?


Shocking Calories: Fast food restaurants have some of the highest calorie items available to consumers. A double cheeseburger will consist of between 800-1100 calories PER BURGER! Many breakfast items that are offered in the drive-thru will be well over 1,000 calories. You have already met half of your recommended caloric intake before you even begin your work day. Something to think about…

5 Bold Nutrition Terms – The focal point

The next section of a nutrition label is where most people throw in the towel. We see numbers, and we run for the hills. It really isn’t that complicated. This section will be labeled “Amount/Serving” with a column next to it titled “%DV”. More on this in a moment.

The terms are ALWAYS listed in the same order, per government regulations. The first three bold terms are the ones that you always want to keep AS LOW AS POSSIBLE.

The first term is “Total Fat”. It will be followed by a measurable amount in grams. There are two sub-terms under this, labeled as ‘Saturated Fat’ and ‘Trans Fat’. (Refer to Nutrition Guide article for fat differences). These are bad fats that raise cholesterol and increase your risk of diseases. They, too, will be followed with measurable amounts in grams.

The second term of the ‘miserable three’ is “Cholesterol”. Wrapping up the first three nutrition items is “Sodium”. These will all be followed by measurable gram amounts. KEEP THESE NUMBERS LOW!

The word on sodium: A prolonged excess sodium intake can increase your odds of a heart event by up to 30%. It is often called the ‘silent killer’ because it quietly causes high-blood pressure, but is typically overlooked by the average consumer when compared to sugar, calories, and fat.

Finally, the label turns a bit more positive. The next bold term that you will see is “Total Carbohydrates”. These have earned a bad reputation in recent years, but you have a set amount of these little guys that you need. There is some negative connotation associated with one of the sub-terms under it, however. You will see “dietary fiber”, which is essential for a healthy digestive system. The next one is “sugars”. Uh-oh… RUN!

The last of the 5 bold terms is “protein”. Those looking to become the next great bodybuilder should aim for a high value here. Pack on the muscle! After the protein label, some more healthy terms arrive. There will be up to 6 terms in the rows that follow, all with measurable gram amounts and %DV numbers. This is the vitamin section, along with calcium, iron, and sometimes potassium. These numbers should be high! If you can get your full daily value in this area of your diet, you are setting yourself up for success.

The skinny on sugar: Sugar intake is the single greatest risk factor in obesity and bodily diseases. The average candy bar has 30 grams of sugar. A bottle of soda averages around 53 grams of sugar. A single tablespoon of ketchup contains 1 teaspoon of sugar. Mind blown!

%DV – The percent of a daily 100

This percentage is easily the most misunderstood of any aspect of a nutrition label. It is so simple if you take the time to look at the concept. There are 2 key points to be aware of to help you understand %DV:

  1. These percentages are based on a 2,000 daily calorie diet.
  2. 100% is your maximum daily value.

This number is essentially telling you the percent of 100 that you are getting from that food for your daily need. For example, if a breakfast bagel contained 1 serving size of a 26% DV carbohydrate number, you can readily ingest 74% for the rest of the day and stay within your daily need.

There are many, MANY, variations to this. If you are on a higher calorie diet, let’s say 3,000 calories, then these percentages will have to be taken down by 1/3. If you are on a carbohydrate free diet, then obviously you are aiming to avoid meeting anything close to this daily need.

The first three terms that we try to avoid have a unique perspective in the %DV. A percentage is tagged to fats, cholesterol, and sodium in an effort to keep you well below a 100% daily intake. In fact, you should keep these numbers as low as possible. Carbohydrates and fiber should have the 100% DV met each day, as should the vitamins and minerals that follow protein on the label. If the overall system is understood, then it is much easier to work your diet using nutrition labels to plan consistent, healthy meals on a daily basis.

Numbers never lie: If your brain is hurting at this point, don’t feel bad. A CNN study in 2010 proved that only 60% of consumers paid attention to nutrition labels in any way, shape, or form. 51% of consumers looked at the ingredients in the food they were purchasing, and only 47% could properly use serving size in figuring their nutritional intake from the food they were eating.

So what does this all mean for you? Understanding how a nutrition label works can shape an entire diet plan. If you have nutritional goals, it is necessary to plan your meals accordingly around these little labels. The goal of this article is to provide you a basic understanding of a nutrition label. Use them as a tool to take control of the food that you eat.