How to Decode A Nutrition Facts Panel

Food labels appear on almost all packaged foods. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established serving sizes for many foods and requires that all labels for a product use the same serving size. For example, the standard serving size for pasta is two ounces of dry pasta which equals one cooked cup. A few years ago, the FDA publicized a revised Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to reveal new scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. The new label makes it easier for consumers to make educated food choices, especially for products that are larger than a single serving. Labels now indicate the number of calories and nutrients on both a “per serving” and “per package” basis.

In addition to the serving size and the servings per container, the FDA requires that the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels show nutrient information in two ways – in quantities (such as grams) and as percentages of standards called the Daily Values. Based on these recommendations, a person who eats 2,000 calories per day should consume:

  • less than 65 grams or 585 calories from fat
  • less than 20 grams or 180 calories from saturated fat
  • at least 275 grams or 1,100 calories from carbohydrates
  • approximately 50 grams or 200 calories from protein
  • less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (although the American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day)
  • less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol
  • about 25 milligrams of dietary fiber

Food labels list ingredients in descending order of prevalence by weight, nutrition facts based on standard serving sizes, and Daily Values based on a 2000-calorie diet. For example, if you compare a cereal that contains “whole grain oats, sugar, oat bran, corn starch, honey, brown sugar syrup, salt, tripotassium phosphate, rice bran, canola oil, and natural almond flavor” to a cereal that reads “100 percent rolled oats” on its label, it is easy to see the difference in nutritional value.

Important things to look for on a nutrition label include:

  • Serving size – If you eat more than one serving, you are consuming more calories, fat, and sugar than what is listed. It may be important to measure out some foods.
  • Fat – For optimal health, you should avoid anything that contains trans fats. Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. The primary dietary source for trans fats in processed food is “partially hydrogenated oils.” Choose foods with more unsaturated fats than saturated fats.
  • Total Carbohydrate – Aim for whole-wheat or whole-grain ingredients, such as oats or quinoa, and look for foods with high fiber content (at least 3 grams per serving).
  • Protein – If two products are similar in calories and sugar, choose the food with more protein. Proteintakes longer than carbohydrates to break down in the body, providing a longer-lasting energy source.
  • Sodium – Avoid packaged foods that contain more than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving. Excess sodium increases blood pressure because it retains fluid in the body, and that creates a strain on the heart.
  • Sugars – Sugars in food can be naturally present and added to foods. Sugar has many names on an ingredient list. Besides those ending in “ose,” such as maltose or sucrose, other names for sugar include high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, corn sweetener, raw sugar, syrup, honey, or fruit juice concentrates. You want to avoid added sugar as it contributes zero nutrients and adds many calories that can lead to extra pounds.
  • Ingredients: Look for ingredient lists that are short and contain whole-food ingredients. I strive to purchase products that have five ingredients or less as well as recognizable ingredients that I can pronounce.

Every ingredient is important! Compare food labels to make healthier choices in the foods you buy. I downloaded a nifty app on my phone called Fooducate that helps me make better food choices. You can scan a packaged item’s bar code (or search for food items through the website), and you’ll see its letter grade (A to D) with a description of its nutritional benefits or reasons to leave it on the shelf. That said, shopping the periphery of a grocery store will ensure you stock up on fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish– all foods that do not require a Nutrition Facts panel.

Quote of the week:

“To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to act in accordance with your thinking.”  ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Recipe of the Week: Hot and Spicy Nuts

A savory, snack that you can also package in mason jars for gifts.


4 tbs. Butter

2 tbs. Worcestershire sauce

½ tsp. cumin

1 tsp. celery salt

1 tsp. garlic powder

¼ tsp. cayenne pepper

1 tsp. salt

4 cups of unsalted mixed nuts

2 tsp. kosher salt

Melt butter in a saucepan. Add all spices and simmer over low heat. Add nuts and stir. Line cookie sheet with foil or parchment paper. Spread nuts and toss with kosher salt. Bake at 325 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Cool on paper towels. Enjoy!

Hot and Spicy Nuts

Published by

Leslie Ouellette

Listening and learning about nutrition, exercise, and health-related issues has been a life-long passion turned into action. I am most passionate about my family, friends, and good health. I am a business professional with over 30 years of expertise in marketing, market research, communications, writing, and editing. @balancedhealthblog

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