Never judge a book by its cover—but always judge a food by its nutrition label.
Because the fancy packaging and carefully-chosen words don’t. But, if you can read a nutrition label properly, you’re empowered to choose the right foods for your goals, and your body. The right type of knowledge is power!
The Food and Drug Administration is in charge of making sure food is safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. But that doesn’t mean labels are always clear or easy to read.
The first things you’ll see under nutrition facts are the “serving size” and “servings per container.” Serving size refers to the amount of food an average person would eat at one sitting. The servings per container refer to exactly that: how many “average one-sitting servings” are in the package.
Scan down a line and you’ll see the “calories per serving.” Per serving is key here. It means you have to consider how many servings you’re really eating. If the package says 100 calories but you’ve eaten twice the suggested amount, you should be cognizant you have just ate 200 calories.
Sometimes there’s a discrepancy between the macros and the calories—the math doesn’t seem to add up, exactly. That’s because the FDA has set rules that allow for a certain amount of rounding. For instance, a package may say it has 1 gram of carbs (4 calories), but the label shows “0 calories,” which is allowed because anything less than 5 calories can be called calorie-free. Below 50 calories, the label must round to the nearest increment of 5, while above 50 calories the label will round to the nearest 10.
And take all of this with a figurative grain of salt: Nutrition labeling (usually) does its best to report the macros and calories you’d find in that food, at that serving size—but it isn’t perfect. In fact, the FDA allows for labeling errors of up to 20%! That sounds insane, but those errors average out over time and don’t really make a difference. So, don’t stress about this!
Continuing down the label, you’ll find the amounts of specific nutrients in the product, including vitamins and minerals. These are listed as a “percent daily value” (% DV). Each serving has a % DV for each of the major micronutrients, based on a standardized 2,000-calorie diet. Depending on your current macros and calorie allotment, your % DV may be different than what’s listed.
A high daily value is considered 20% or more and a low daily value is 5% or less than what’s recommended here.
Lastly, there’s the ingredient list. All the food’s ingredients are listed here, in descending order by weight. For instance, a soda is mostly carbonated water, so that will come first on the list. The smallest (lightest) ingredient will appear last on the list—such as caffeine—with everything else arranged in between.
This is also where you can find any important allergy information, like whether the food was processed near tree nuts, or contains phenylalanine. For people with allergies or serious diet restrictions, this is the most essential information on the package.
Food labels are more than just a fancy wrapper; they’re loaded with info to help you make smarter nutrition choices.
Now, next time you’re in the grocery store reaching for your favorite snacks, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting.