mcdougall oatmeal how to read a nutrition labelWhat do all those terms, numbers and percentages mean? Here’s the basics of how to read a nutrition label.

By law there’s one on the packaging of every food item you purchase. The producers are required to disclose what’s in their food items, and that’s a very good thing! Because if you just believe their marketing, you’ll think that just about everything you buy is full of nothing but natural goodness. In lots of cases, nothing could be further from the truth.

Serving Size

This tells you both what the producers consider is the amount one person will typically eat at one time. The label will also include the total number of those servings that are contained in the entire package.

Now the first thing to realize is that you may not agree that the suggested serving size is all that realistic. If the serving size says 1/2 cup, but you would eat a whole cup each time, you’ll have to double all the numbers for everything on the label. The calories, fat and nutrients on the rest of the label are all tabulated to that suggested serving size.

Total Calories

This is of particular interest to dieters who are limiting themselves to a set number of calories per day to lose (or gain) weight.

Sidenote: The diet-peddlers have drummed this into us so much, that many people think it’s the only way to get a healthy body. We do not believe that at all. If you will eat the right natural whole foods, cutting out added sugars and reducing (or eliminating) meats and fats, you shouldn’t have to subject yourself to the “cruel and unusual punishment” of calorie counting. If you’re eating the right foods, and keeping active with good exercise, you can generally eat until you’re satisfied.

Nevertheless, the number of calories shown on the nutrition label is still valuable. Just by glancing at it you can usually get an idea of what you’re going to find in the food. If a small serving size has a high number of calories, it’s an indicator to check the ingredients list for lots of sugar. Just compare the calories in processed foods with fruits and vegetables whose calorie count is very often zero!

Percent Daily Values

The Percent Daily Values (DV) is a guide to the nutrients contained in one suggested serving. If, for example, the nutrition label says “Vitamin C … 10%”, it means that by eating one serving of this food you will get 10% of the total amount of vitamin C you need each DAY (not just in this one meal or snack). These DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie diet for a healthy adult. The recommended allowances are developed as a guide by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

This number can help you very quickly evaluate a product in a several ways:

  1. You can quickly compare 2 different products you are considering buying to see at a glance which is the more nutritious.
  2. You can easily spot foods that are full of “empty calories”. If an item has several hundred calories, but very low percentages of the vitamins and minerals you need each day, then those are “empty calories”. After eating that item you’re still going to have to eat other things to get the nutrients you need.
  3. You can see what foods are going to give you too much of the things that should be red flags.

As a general guide:

  • 5% or less is “low”. Aim low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium.
  • 20% or more is high. Aim high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Read that Ingredient List Carefully

Any food product that has more than one ingredient is required to include a full list of ingredients on the nutrition label.

And here is something really important you need to know! …

Ingredients are not listed randomly or just alphabetically. And they are not listed in any old order that the food company decides. The regulations require that all ingredients are to be listed in descending order of predominance by weight. In other words, the ingredients that are present in the largest amounts are listed first.

That is SO helpful (and often very revealing)!

For example, we all know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and you want to send your kids out the door with their tummy’s filled. So, you pick up a box of Apple Jacks … it’s cereal, so it’s good for you, right? But then you turn the box over and check the ingredients, and #1 on the list is “SUGAR”. That means the food company have put more sugar in that product than anything else!

I guess they’re banking on you not knowing how to read a nutrition label.

A QUICK TIP: Follow this simple rule of thumb … look at the top 2-3 ingredients on the list, and that will tell you what you are predominantly eating. So even if you see some things that are generally good for you further down the list, don’t be fooled — there may not much of them in there at all.

Watch Out for the Other Names They Use

how to read a nutrition label and avoid too much sugarWhat did Shakespeare say? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

… And sugar by any other name is just as deadly.

Sometimes you will read the ingredients list and not see the word “sugar” listed at all. But don’t be fooled. Here’s a list of the other most common names for added sugars according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sugar, syrup and white sugar.

You might also see one of these on an ingredients list: fructose, lactose or maltose. Fructose is sugar derived from fruit and vegetables; lactose is milk sugar; and maltose is sugar that comes from grain.

By the way, “sodium” is salt. That scientific name sodium sounds a little better, so some people actually think it’s a healthy mineral you can’t get enough of. Not so. You definitely can have too much salt in your diet. Too much sodium increases blood pressure because it holds excess fluid in the body, creating an added burden on the heart. High blood pressure increases your risk of stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and kidney disease.

SO … Learn How to Read a Nutrition Label

The FDA, along with several watchdog groups who have worked for a number of years on this, have done us a great service by requiring food companies to tell us what’s in their products. It’s vitally important that you know at least these basics of how to read a nutrition label.

In July of 2016, the FDA’s regulations were updated with several improvements that will be in full effect by 2018. Check it out …


New FDA nutrition fact label 2016


For more information, download the FDA’s information sheet: “Understanding and Using the Nutrition Facts Label”