How to Read Nutrition Facts Tables
The Nutrition Facts table is on the side or back of most packaged foods. It’s often found close to the ingredient listing.
The purpose of it is to help people like us make better nutrition decisions. When we can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, we should be able to eat better, right?
But what are all these things and what do all these numbers mean?
Here’s my four-step crash course on reading the Nutrition Facts table.
Step 1: Serving Size
The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts table is to note the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. So, it’s tricky.
All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.
Let’s use an example – plain, unsalted walnuts from BJ’s.
As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30 g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.
FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts).
Step 2: % Daily Value
The % Daily Value (%DV) is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. Ideally, you will get 100% DV for each nutrient every day. This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day.
NOTE: Since children are smaller and have different nutritional needs if a type of food is intended solely for children under the age of 4, then those foods use a child’s average nutrition needs for the %DV.
The %DV is a guideline, not a rigid rule.
You don’t need to add all of your %DV up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot.
NOTE: Not every nutrient has a %DV. You can see it’s missing for things like cholesterol, sugar, and protein. This is because there isn’t an agreed “official” %DV for that nutrient. The good news is that the new Nutrition Facts tables will include a %DV for sugar. Keep your eyes out for that.
Step 3: Middle of the table – mostly macronutrients
Calories are pretty straight forward. Here, a ¼ cup (30g) of walnuts has 200 calories.
Fat is measured in grams. That 20g of fat (30% DV) is total fat, it includes the items underneath it. Here, 20g of total fat includes 2g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 14 g polyunsaturated fat, and 2.5g monunsaturated fat.
Cholesterol, sodium, and potassium are all measured in mg. Ideally, aim for around 100% of potassium and sodium each day. It’s easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made, restaurant foods, or snacks. Keep an eye on this number if sodium can be a problem for you (especially if your doctor mentioned it, like if you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, etc.).
Carbohydrate, like fat, is total carbohydrates and includes the items underneath it like fiber, sugar, and starch (not shown). Here, 30g of walnuts contain 4g of carbohydrates. That is 2g are of fiber and 1g of sugar. And as you can see, 2g of fiber is 8% of your daily value for fiber. There is no %DV for sugar because there is not yet an agreed upon value.
Proteins, like calories, are pretty straight forward as well. Here, a ¼ cup (30g) of walnuts contains 5 g of protein.
Step 4: Bottom of the table – mostly micronutrients
The micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. The new labels will list potassium, calcium, and iron. Yes, potassium will drop from the middle of the table to the bottom, and both vitamins A & C will become optional.
Manufacturers can add other vitamins and minerals to the bottom of their Nutrition Facts table (this is optional). And you’ll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others do.
I hope this crash course in the Nutrition Facts table was helpful.
I don’t think our food choices should be dictated by food labels, but the information they contain can be very helpful. Especially when we are eating more processed foods.