Healthy Eating 101: How To Read Nutrition Labels

by Debbie Wolfe

Ever thought about what's really in that frozen pasta?

There’s been a surge of interest to go back to “real” ingredients — ones you can pronounce and identify. That’s good, especially if you are trying to reduce sugar intake. But where do you find all that info on your favorite new all natural snack? 

Thankfully, it’s required by law to put nutrition facts labels on edible products sold in the U.S. You may know this as the “Nutrition Facts” section on the label. This information helps the consumer understand how much of what is in each serving of food. Every label will not be identical, but they show similar information about the food product.

Here's a package of roasted garlic and olive oil couscous as an example:

Serving Size

Nutrition Facts typically start off with serving sizes. The units of measurement are standardized. It’s cups, tablespoons, pieces, etc., followed by the metric amount. Depending on what it is, like say a grain, it will display the serving size when uncooked and cooked. The next bit of information will let you know how many servings are in the package.

This information is pretty significant, but often overlooked.  My small box of couscous is three servings, but the serving size in ⅓ cup uncooked. So, if I consume the whole box myself, I need to triple all the other nutrient information to reflect what I just ate.


Moving on to the next section, the calories and the calories from fat. This is what most people only look at on the back of a box, but do not fully understand it.

In my sample box, ⅓ cup of uncooked couscous has 200 calories. Ten of those calories are from fat. However, if I consume the entire box, I would be eating 600 calories with 30 of those calories from fat. Overall, it’s not so bad. Nonetheless, given that the average person only needs 2,000 calories per day and I’m getting 600 of it from couscous, it’s not a good thing. 

Say it was a cup of macaroni and cheese? That’s a higher fat content food that gets about half of its calories from fat (and most people eat more than one cup of it at a time). According to the FDA a diet based on 2,000 calories per day, a serving size that has 400 calories or more per serving is high. Between 100-300 is considered moderate. Most Americans consume WAY more calories that are needed per day. Understanding serving size and calories can help control excessive caloric intake.

nutrition labelFats, Cholesterol and Sodium

This next section tells the consumer some of the nutrients in the food that you should eat in moderation. The nutrients are given in grams and percentage (%) daily value (based on a 2,000 calorie diet). The percentage (%) daily value helps you visualize how much of the nutrient is present in each serving and how much it covers your suggested nutritional daily needs.  

The fats are broken down into saturated and trans fat. Both types of fats can have adverse effects on your health and should be eaten in very little amounts if possible. The same goes with sodium and cholesterol. Eating foods with high amounts of any of these nutrients will lead to an increased risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure. My box of couscous is low in fat and cholesterol (excellent), but is very high in sodium (yikes). 

Carbs, Protein and Vitamins

Generally, this section represents things you should get more of in your diet. Total carb includes carbohydrates you get from sugar and fiber. You’ll want to get less carbs from sugar and other simple carbohydrates (like white flour and white rice). However, the higher the fiber content and protein per serving is typically a good thing.

Protein and fiber help you feel fuller longer and are overall better for your health. As you can see, my couscous is doing well with the fiber and protein per serving category. The vitamin content is also listed; it will vary depending on the food. It seems that couscous is an okay source for iron, but not much else.  

The Footnotes

The last section is the footnote of the nutrition facts label.This is where you can compare how well your food stacks up against what is recommended for an average 2,000 calorie diet. So, when I compare where my couscous stacks up against most of the daily nutrient needs, it’s not too bad, with the exception of the sodium.

Eating should be enjoyable and it’s something we all need to do in order to survive. Knowing what’s in your food is important, but reading nutritional labels to better understand what you are getting out of your food can help you make better food choices.

Looking for other healthy eating tips? Don't miss these other articles from Z Living:

healthy gourmetWATCH on Z Living: Healthy Gourmet, where nutritionist Julie Daniluk and chef Ezra Title join forces and battle between taste and nutrition, helping home cooks create nutritious and tasty meals that can feed a crowd. See a sneak preview here.

Tell us in the comments: Do you pay attention to nutrition labels? Why or why not?

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