How to Read Nutrition Facts Tables

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The Nutrition Facts table is on the side of most packaged foods. It’s often found close to the ingredient listing. The purpose of it is to help consumers make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, they should be able to eat better, right? 

Here’s my four-step crash course on reading the Nutrition Facts table.

Step 1: Serving Size

The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts table is to note the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. So, it's tricky. 

All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.

In the US and Canada, in the next few years, new labels will also have more realistic serving sizes to reflect the amount that people eat in one sitting, and not be artificially small.

Let’s use an example (I've included both older and new versions of the label):

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As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a 1 cup or 110g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.

FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is.

Step 2: % Daily Value

The % Daily Value (%DV) is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. Ideally, you will get 100% DV for each nutrient every day. This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day.

Since children are smaller and have different nutritional needs if a type of food is intended solely for children under the age of 4, then those foods use a child’s average nutrition needs for the %DV.

Remember, the %DV is a guideline, not a rigid rule.

You don’t need to add all of your %DV up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot. Not every nutrient has a %DV. You can see it's missing for things like sugar and protein. This is because there isn't an agreed "official" %DV for that nutrient. 

Step 3: Middle of the table (calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, and protein)

Calories are pretty straight forward. Here, 1 cup (110 g) has 200 calories.

Total fat is bold for a reason. That 19 g of fat (29% DV) is total fat. That includes the non-bolded items underneath it. Here, 7 g of total fat includes 3 g saturated fat, (7 g - 3 g = 4 g) unsaturated fat, and 0 g trans fat. Yes, unsaturated fats including mono- and poly-unsaturated are not on the label, so you need to do a quick subtraction.

Cholesterol and sodium are measured in mg. Ideally, aim for around 100% of sodium each day. It's easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made, restaurant foods, or snacks. Keep an eye on this number if sodium can be a problem for you (e.g., if your doctor mentioned it, if you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, etc.).

Total Carbohydrate, like fat, is bold because it is total carbohydrates. It includes the non-bolded items underneath it like fiber, sugar, and starch (not shown). Here, 1 cup contains 30 g of carbohydrates and 3 g are fiber and 2 g are sugars. And as you can see, 3 g of fiber is 14% of your daily value for fiber.

Proteins, like calories, are pretty straight forward as well. Here, a 1 cup contains 5 g of protein.

Step 4: Bottom of the table (vitamins and minerals)

The vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. The labels list vitamins A & C, calcium, and iron. Manufacturers can add other vitamins and minerals to the bottom of their Nutrition Facts table (this is optional). And you'll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others do.

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