How often are you reading the nutrition facts table? How comfortable are you with reading and understanding what is on there?
I find this answer can vary for each person. But even if we are comfortable reading the nutrition facts, it can still be a little confusing.
But just in case you aren’t familiar, 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, it helps provide them with the knowledge they need to be able to make healthier choices.
Although, that only works if you know how to read them, understand what to look for, and actually take the time to look at them!
Now, if you have read some of my other blog posts, you know I am not a fan of counting calories or anything like that. However, just because we aren’t counting calories, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evaluate what is in our food and make educated choices.
Whether you like the Nutrition Facts table or not, let’s make sure you get the most out of it, since it’s not going anywhere soon and it really can be important to know how to use for our health.
Here’s my five-step crash course on reading the Nutrition Facts table.
Step 1: Ingredient List
The most important starting place for ready the Nutrition Facts table is actually NOT on the actual Nutrition Facts table. Yup, it’s the Ingredient List.
So instead of starting at the top and working your way down the list, jump to the BOTTOM first and look for the Ingredient List.
I recommend this because, while it’s important to know the nutrition facts, the nutrition facts can only help our health so much if we are choosing highly processed foods that are made with ingredients we don’t need. As I have discussed in some other blog posts, a calorie is not just a calorie and naturally occurring nutrients is very different from synthetically made nutrients that are added in. So where our calories and nutrients are coming from makes a difference!
Which means if we look at the Ingredient List first, we can save ourselves some time because we can decide if it’s a food we even want to have.
When looking at the Ingredient List I recommend keeping two things in mind.
First, look for short ingredient lists. Often times when there are long ingredient lists, there are a lot of extra ingredients we don’t need… think preservatives, thickeners, stabilizers, etc…
Second, look for ingredients that you actually KNOW what they are. How many times have you read an ingredient list and couldn’t pronounce some of the ingredients? Ya… skip those since we don’t need those ingredients. Look for real whole foods listed as the ingredients. Ideally looking for ones that don’t have lots of added sweeteners, refined grains, unhealthy fats, and other ingredients that we might be working to reduce.
Step 2: Serving Size
A key-starting place after reading the Ingredient List and if you have decided this is a food that you want to have is the Serving Size, which we can see right at the VERY TOP of the Nutrition Facts.
We have to start here because 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.
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.
Let’s use an example - plain, unsalted walnuts from Costco.
As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30 g. 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 (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts).
Step 3: Middle of the table (e.g. Calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and protein)
Calories are pretty straightforward. For that serving size listed that is how many calories there are. So in our example here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts has 200 calories.
Following Calories we see the Fats section. Fat is bold for a reason. That 20 g of fat is total fat. That includes the non-bold items underneath it, which is a breakdown of what types of fats. The typical types of fat we see are Saturated Fats and Trans Fats. Saturated Fats are typically the fats that we are looking to reduce and Trans Fats are the ones we want to avoid. The healthy types of fats, which would be our unsaturated fats (both mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated) aren’t typically listed. In the image here we see that there is 20 g of total fat includes 2 g saturated fat, and 0 g trans fats. Which if you do a little math 20 g - 2 g = 18 g unsaturated fat. Yes, sorry… we usually have to do a little math to see how much the healthy fats are.
Following the Fats we see listed Cholesterol and Sodium, which are both measured in mg.
For an average healthy person it’s recommended to have no more than 300 mg a day, 200 mg if you are at risk for heart disease. Although, in the recent years, Cholesterol has been removed as a nutrient of concern in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans because there is research suggesting the dietary cholesterol (or cholesterol that we eat) does not affect our blood cholesterol (what is measured in your blood work) as much as it was once thought.
When looking at salt, it's easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made foods, restaurant foods, or snack type foods. 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.). Typically, less than 2400 mg a day is recommended, but it may be even lower if you have high blood pressures. Potassium may or may not be listed here. It' snot a required nutrient, but if it is listed it might be underneath Sodium.
Carbohydrates are up next on the list, and like fat, is bold because at the top we see the total carbohydrates first. That total includes the non-bold items underneath it like fiber, sugars (which includes naturally occurring sugars) and added sugars (which is not always listed just yet, but will be in the near future). Here, 30 g of walnuts contain 3 g of carbohydrates; that 3 g are all fiber. There is no sugar.
Proteins, like calories, are pretty straightforward as well. We will see the total amount of protein listed for that serving size. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts contains 5 g of protein.
Step 4: % Daily Value
The % Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of each nutrient that we all need every day for each nutrient. Ideally, if we added up all the foods and drinks we had during the day, that %DV would equal 100%.
Although, it’s important to note that the %DV listed on Nutrition Facts Labels are NOT always easy to interpret.
The %DV listed on ANY Nutrition Facts Label in the US are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. That means if you personally need fewer calories per day or need more calories per day, these %DV are NOT going to be accurate for you. Which means, that makes %DV CONFUSING!
NOTE: 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, not the 2,000 Calorie Diet.
The %DV is meant to be used as a guideline, not a rigid rule. However, I find some people’s eyes move towards the %DV first, not to the nutrients or ingredients, and choose foods based on the %DV. That is NOT what we want to look at first. But it doesn’t hurt to look at the %DV and have an idea of how use it.
Just to be clear, you DON’T need to add all of your %DV up for everything you eat all day!
Instead, we can use a little trick that anything listed as 5% or less not be a good source of something (so it’s LOW in that nutrient); and, anything 20% or more makes that food a good source of that nutrients (so it’s HIGH).
Nutrients we want to get MORE of include Dietary Fiber, Potassium (which is an optional nutrient not always listed in the middle of the Nutrition Facts, but if it is it will be under Sodium), Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. Nutrients we want to typically REDUCE include Saturated Fats, Trans Fats, Cholesterol, and Sodium.
NOTE: Not every nutrient has a %DV. You can see it's missing for things like sugar and protein. This is because there wasn't an agreed "official" %DV for that nutrient. The good news is that the new Nutrition Facts tables will include a %DV for the new addition of added sugar! Since it's been determined that we should keep that added sugar to less than 10% of our total calories. Keep your eyes out for that.
Step 5: Bottom of the table (e.g. vitamins & minerals)
The vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. Nutrition Facts labels will typically list Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron.
No other nutrients are required to be listed. However, 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.
I know… it’s a lot to think about if this isn’t something you might have learned about before. But I hope this crash course in the Nutrition Facts table was helpful. While you can take it or leave it when it comes to making food decisions, the Nutrition Facts are here to stay.
Although, it will change slightly over the next few years, it should be for the better to help make the Nutrition Facts easier for everyone to read and understand.
And if you are thinking about Walnuts since we used that as an example here, make sure to check out this Super-Easy Walnut “Sandwich” Snack.
Recipe (walnuts): Delicious and Super-Easy Walnut Snack
8 walnut halves
4 dates, pitted
Make a "date sandwich" by squeezing each date between two walnut halves.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Try with pecans instead.