Label Literacy: Understanding Nutrition Labels and Terms

Label Literacy

Nutrition labels can often seem hard to digest. Though they’re meant to help us better understand the nutritional value of our foods, it can be hard to answer questions like, “What exactly is a ‘serving size’?” and “What is the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats?”

Because the information stored in these panels is critical for making healthy dietary choices, it pays to take the time to understand what you’re really eating.

The Basics

The basics on a nutrition label

Serving Size: This quantity represents the amount that should be consumed by one person, and the numbers displayed throughout the label relate to the contents of one serving. For example, if a label displays three grams of fat, this represents the fat contents in one serving, though the whole package likely consists of more fat than that.

Servings Per Container: While the serving size relates to the recommended serving for one person, the serving per container label dictates the number of servings of food that comprise that food package. For example, a box of crackers may hold four servings per container at six crackers per serving size, meaning that there are 24 crackers total in the box. All nutritional content for the box of crackers represents nutritional information for one serving or one-fourth (six crackers) of the entire box.

Percentage of Daily Value: On the right-hand side of nutrition labels, you’ll often see a “% Daily Value” column beside each listed nutrient and vitamin. This label typically features an asterisk, which directs the consumer to a footnote located at the bottom of the label. The footnote usually displays a note like, “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your caloric needs”. As such, this figure is not absolute, but can fluctuate person to person. Still, it is a good guideline for knowing if something is particularly high in sugar, fat or vitamins.


Macronutrients, like fat, carbohydrates and protein, are often represented in a bolded font, while subset groups of each macronutrient (a further breakdown) are displayed with an indent underneath.

Total Fat: The total fat category is comprised of different types of fat, including saturated fat and trans fat. These fats are recommended to be eaten sparingly. Healthier fats like monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats aren’t required to be listed, but you can discover any inclusion of “good” fats by subtracting the saturated fat and trans fat amounts from the total fat amount.

Total Carbohydrate: This category breaks down into dietary fiber and sugars. Added sugars should be minimized as much as possible in our diets. The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 25 grams of sugar per day, and that men consume no more than 36 grams a day. Increasing your intake of fiber, on the other hand, is highly encouraged. Fiber aids in healthy digestion and has been shown to improve cholesterol levels and lower the risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Sodium: The FDA recommends consuming no more than 2,400 mg of sodium a day, so watch out for high sodium content in prepackaged food.

Protein: Considered the building blocks of muscle and one of the most satiating macronutrients, protein does a body good.

Fact or Illusion: Loopholes and Tricky Lingo

Loopholes and tricky lingo on nutrition labels

Be wary of a few deceitful guises that manufacturers are able to use on nutrition labels:

  • Food servings that contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat can be displayed as having “0g Trans Fat”.
  • Items listed in the ingredient list section are sometimes disguised and listed as synonyms of unhealthy ingredients in order to deceive consumers. For example, even if you don’t see sugar listed as an ingredient in a food item, check for synonyms of sugar or artificial sugar, including dextrose, fructose, maltose and glucose.

Understanding the nutritional guidelines set forth in food packaging is crucial in helping you accomplish any dietary goals. Armed with nutrition label knowledge, you can fine-tune your health and wellness goals and construct a nutritionally rich meal plan that makes sense for your body.

For more information on nutrition labels, visit 4 Important Things to Look For on Nutrition Labels.

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