By: Sasha de Beausset

We all recognize the black and white Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods. Maybe if we are trying to be a little more health-conscious, we glance at it before buying food at the supermarket, more or less understanding how to decide which food is better for us. However, most of us prefer to ignore the nutrition facts label either because it doesn't interest us, or because "ignorance is bliss".

In order to promote a better understanding of the nutrition facts label, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) has identified four simple steps you can follow to read and understand nutrition labels, mentioned below.

However, while these steps help give you general guidelines on how to read the label to make better health choices (more or less), there are plenty of exceptions as to when these guidelines are healthy for you.

1. Read the Calories
The simple story: Calories are a measure of how much energy there is in a given sized portion or serving of a specific food. According to the FDA, the general guide to reading and understanding calories per serving is the following:


  • 40 Calories is low

  • 100 Calories is moderate

  • 400 Calories or more is high


The guidelines recommend you choose foods lower in calories over foods higher in calories.

The real story: Calories aren't "bad" or something to be avoided, necessarily. We need calories for our bodies to sustain themselves. The problem is when you consume more calories than you need to sustain a healthy weight.

How many calories are too many calories? This is different for everyone. It depends on your sex, age, weight, physical activity and overall health (you can find out your actual calorie needs here). For all intents and purposes, though, the FDA has determined average calorie needs to be 2000 per day.

There is another potential problem with the simple story. I may choose a food because it is low in calories, but it might be lacking in vitamins and minerals that make foods healthy. These are called "empty calories." A food may be higher in calories, but it may also be chock full of important vitamins and minerals.

2. Serving Size and Servings Per Container
The simple story: Read the serving size and understand how much you should eat in one sitting. Also, find out how many servings are in one package. Limit yourself to eating one serving.

The real story: If you've ever looked at the serving sizes and number of servings on food packages, you probably know they sometimes just don't make any sense for the average consumer.

When serving sizes are in grams, it's hard to estimate just how much you should be eating (unless you carry around a pocket scale). The servings per package is helpful, but it can also be deceiving, or even unrealistic.

For example, if you buy a can of soda and read the servings per container, it might say 1.5, 2, or even 3. But, a can isn't meant to be sealed after it is opened. So why do they put more servings in the can than you can drink in one sitting? The answer is usually because it makes the drink look lighter in calories than it actually is. That way you glance at the calories, and think, "Hey! 50 calories per serving. Not bad!" and the next thing you know you've gulped down 150 empty calories.

3. Choose Nutrients Wisely
The simple story: The FDA recommends you limit fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium, because they could increase your risk of a range of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart and circulatory issues, and even cancer. Look for lower percent daily value (%DV) on these.

The FDA wants you to make sure you look to get more vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, Iron, and Dietary Fiber. These nutrients help reduce your risk of a range of chronic diseases, like osteoporosis and cancer, and help to promote healthy bowel function, vision, and circulation.

The real story: Foods may contain some nutrients not listed, meaning that just because they show low values in those nutrients, it doesn't mean they don't contain other important nutrients.

For example, if you look at the basic nutrition facts for beets, they don't contain much Vitamin C, A, iron or calcium, but they actually contain significant amounts of folate and manganese, two important minerals for normal brain function and cell health.

Additionally, recent research shows that consuming certain types of fat is beneficial for your health, which contradicts the general recommendation to "avoid fat". For this reason, it is important to be able to differentiate between different types of fat. Saturated fat may could potentially cause circulatory illnesses, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat which is beneficial for your heart and brain, and may even benefit weight control.

4. Use % Daily Value to Compare Foods
The simple story: For the "good" nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber you want to look for higher percent daily value (%DV)

The real story: While the %DV allow you to compare between foods, the percentages are based on a person with a 2000 calorie energy requirement, with no special nutritional needs. Also, the %DV comes from recommended daily intake data from the 1960s, and has since been updated for other uses.

About the Aurthor:
Sasha de Beausset is a Nutritional Anthropologist with a B.A. from Tufts University, an M.Sc. in Food and Nutrition from Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala.