Reading & Understanding Nutrition Labels

Nutrition labels can often be misleading, and if you don’t know how to accurately read one it can be difficult to know what exactly you are consuming. This breakdown will hopefully help you understand how to read and understand nutrition labels, so that you know what foods are of good quality and which ones are not as well as compare similar food items. This nutrition label example is from Skippy’s Natural Peanut Butter.


This is the place that labels are able to really trick people. If we ignore or don’t understand this vital bit of information we can greatly undermine our health. In this jar of peanut butter there are about 13 servings in one container (the label usually indicates the number of servings per container although this one does not). One serving is only 2 tbs, and all of the following nutritional information is based on just one serving. Most of us consume more than what is indicated as a single serving. If you were to consume more than just 2 tbs you would need to multiply all of the following information by however many servings you consume.

This is how a lot of items labeled as “healthy” or “low calorie” can trick us into believing that we are making a good choice, but in reality they are hiding that there are multiple servings in a container or their serving size on the label is very small. This is also a place for manufacturers to hide the fact that they are actually giving you 52.5 g of sugar in one bottle of Gatorade, because they label it as “2.5 servings per container” with  “21 g of sugar per serving”.


The calorie information is also only an indication of the number of calories in one serving. If you eat more than one serving, you need to multiply to account for the true number of calories consumed. These calories are accounted for by the number of calories per gram of each nutrient in the product. For example, the number of calories per gram for the 3 macronutrients are : fat = 9 calories per gram, carbohydrate = 4 calories per gram (sugar counts as a carbohydrate, therefore it is sub listed under the total number of carbohydrates), protein = 4 calories per gram. That is how they account for the “number of calories from fat” off to the right of the total number of calories. Many Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for a number of nutrients such as fiber and various vitamins and minerals.


As said above, the 3 macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Your body needs a good supply of these in order to function properly. Yes, you read that right. Your body needs carbohydrates and fats! We just want to make sure they are coming from good sources of carbs and fats (read the carbohydrates and fats articles in the Elevate Fitness Nutrition Guide for more info on good sources). On this nutrition label we can see that of the 16 g of fat, 3.5 g comes from saturated fat, meaning that it is quite high in fat per serving. (To help determine whether something is high in content you can refer to the DV % which is explained below). Of the 6 g carbohydrates per serving in this peanut butter, 3 g of them come from sugar. 

% Daily Value

The % Daily Values (%DVs) are based on the Daily Value recommendations for key nutrients determined by the FDA, but only for a 2,000 calorie daily diet. The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. The total percentage number on the nutrition label does not add up to 100%, but each percentage is based off of the percentage of the daily recommended amount within one serving of the food item.

*5%DV or less is low and 20%DV or more is high

Comparing Labels

The %DV also makes it easy for you to make comparisons. You can compare one product or brand to a similar product. Just make sure the serving sizes are the same, or account for the difference in serving sizes when comparing.


For example, when comparing reduced fat 2% milk to nonfat milk, you can see that they both contain the same amount of calcium, but the 2% milk contains more fat and more calories than the nonfat milk. This higher amount of fat increases the amount of calories within the same serving size as nonfat milk (120 compared to 80 due to 45 calories from fat). This makes nonfat milk more nutrient dense, because you consume the same amount of nutrients with less calories and less fat. 


The writing at the bottom of the label with the * is the footnote that is for reference. This statement must be on all food labels, but the full footnote may not be on the package if the size of the label is too small. When the full footnote does appear, it will always be the same. It doesn’t change from product to product, because it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans by the FDA; it is not about a specific food product. It gives daily recommended values for a 2,000 calorie diet as well as for a 2,500 calorie diet. -You would have to adjust them according to what caloric intake level you are on, but these are still good to use as reference. The items that state “less than” however many grams indicates that the number is the maximum amount you should consume in a single day for a healthy diet. If something says “at least” that means you need at least that much or more within a single day. 


If you find yourself thinking, “Well I am eating low calorie foods and ‘healthy’ items, but I’m still not losing weight”, take a second to see if you are truly consuming a single serving or if the manufacturers are hiding things within the products you consume. After reading this article we can see some of the ways that manufactures can get away with selling foods with ridiculous amounts of fat or sugar in them, and hopefully now you know how to compare similar items to make the most beneficial choices or avoid certain foods all together. Understanding these vital bits of information can help us stay on track with our weight loss goals, cholesterol levels, and sodium levels depending on whatever you particularly need to watch for in order to be healthy.


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