• Steven Shuster, MS, CISSN

Nutrition Basics: Food Labels

Key points:

  • It is important to pay attention to the serving size and the servings per container.

  • The label contains information about the absolute and relative amounts of each macronutrient. That is, the absolute amount in each serving and how that amount fits into an average 2000 Calorie diet.

  • Your daily goals may vary greatly from the recommended amounts depending on your goals and diet strategy.

  • The most abundant micronutrients are also listed with the amount relative to a hypothetical 2000 Calorie diet.

Nutrition or food labels convey a fair amount of nutrition in a small space. What is nice about nutrition labels is that they are standardized and they all contain the same type of information.

It is unclear what food this particular label is describing, but that is unimportant; it can still serve as a model to discuss the given information. Note that I have added the colored boxes to aid in our discussion. An untouched label is strictly black and white.

Within the top blue box is the serving size and the number of servings per container. The servings are usually given in grams. If you are not comfortable thinking in those units, remember that there are about 28 grams in an ounce.

What you have to pay attention to in this box is the number of servings per container. Sometimes there is one serving per container. Many times there are more than that, even when it looks like a single serving size.

Below that, in the orange box, is the Calories label. Note, these are big ‘C’ calories (kilocalories, food calories). These are the Calories per serving. This food item has 230 Calories per serving. These are estimates, rounded to the nearest 10 Calories.

Multiplying the number of servings by the Calories per serving will give you the number of servings in the container. In this example you get:

8 servings × 230 Calories per serving = 1840 Calories.

To figure out how many Calories you are eating, simply multiply the Calories per serving by the number of servings.

Sometimes the orange box will also contain ‘Fat Calories.’ Recall that fat has 9 Calories per gram. In the next box there is the information how much fat is in the food.

The yellow box has information about both fat and cholesterol. Fat is further categorized as saturated and trans fats. Moreover, sometimes the label will also list mono and/or polyunsaturated fats, as well. The total fat multiplied by 9 will give you the number of calories in this food from fat.

It is generally recommended to consume less than 2 grams per day of trans fats. If there is any ingredient with ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ in the ingredient list, it is a safe bet that the food will contain trans fats.

If we do the math, 8 grams of fat × 9 Calories per gram = 72 Calories from fat.

On the right hand side of the yellow and green boxes there are percentages listed. In an average 2,000 Calorie diet, a single serving of this food would represent the listed percent for each nutrient. For example, a serving of this food contains 10% of the total fat recommended for the day, but only 5% of saturated fat.

The green box contains information about the carbohydrate content of the food. This can be a little bit tricky: total carbohydrate also includes fiber. Fiber is (mostly) indigestible carbohydrate. This means that you are not likely getting the full caloric value of carbohydrate from this fiber.

There are generally two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber provides 2 Calories per gram, and insoluble fiber provides 0 Calories per gram.

Also, in the green box is the number of sugars. These are essentially all non-starch and non-fiber carbohydrates contained in the food.

Newer labels also list added sugars. The importance of noting the added sugars is that these are usually devoid of other nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, that would potentially be in whole foods. They are known as ‘empty calories.’ This may be ok or not depending on your goals at the moment. Added sugars do not have an RDA because they are not required.

Sugar alcohols are often used to sweeten foods with less of a caloric effect than sugar. Sugar alcohols vary between 1.5 and 3 Calories per gram. There are none on this label, but some labels list them.

Doing the math for Calories from carbohydrate we have,

33 grams of non-fiber carbohydrate × 4 Calories per gram = 132 Cal. from CHO.

4 grams of fiber × 2 Calories per gram = 8 Calories from fiber. Note that this makes the assumption that all the fiber is soluble. Labels do not report this formation.

The red box contains the amount of protein. They do not usually give a percent of the RDA for protein, though you can figure that out by dividing your goal protein into this number.

In this example there are 3 grams of protein. To determine the Calories from protein we take,

3 grams of protein × 4 Calories per gram of protein = 12 Calories from protein.

In the bottom, purple box, can be found the micronutrients contained in this food. This example includes the amounts, but you will often only see the percentages listed. They do not provide Calories so we can ignore them with our math.

The total Calories determined from the math (72 FAT+132 CHO+8 FIB+12 PRO) is 224. Remember, though, that food labels round up to the nearest 10 Calories.

This should help you feel a little more confident when looking at labels and determining how well a food choice fits into your diet goals.

In the next post we will put all this information together and discuss how to start finding a diet or way of eating that will work for you. It is important that your plan works to move you towards your goals and is something that you can sustain for as long as it takes for you to reach your goals.

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