Understanding Nutrition Facts Labels

Understanding nutrition facts labels is critical to buying healthy foods. For years, we had a snack obsession, the Larabar. Until we found a new snack bar with over double the protein, double the fiber, and a third the sugar. This new bar has a much higher nutrition value.

However, we realized that we still had a lot to learn to understand nutrition facts labels as an effective health tool. So, how can the label clue us in if it is actually healthy or not? 

understanding nutrition facts labels

1. Be Aware of the Serving Size.

Who only eats two oreos, right? Well, that is the serving size, so take note and monitor how many calories you’re consuming. While grocery shopping and comparing one food item to another, serving size is the first number to check.

As a general rule of thumb, a healthy snack food, like a snack bar, should have less than 150 calories per serving.

2. Look at the Percent Daily Value (%DV).

The percent daily values are based on an adult diet of 2,000 calories (if you don’t know your appropriate daily caloric intake, you can calculate DCI here). If you see a serving with anything less than 5% DV, that’s low. If it is higher than 20% DV, that’s high.

This is critical to understand about nutrition facts labels. Sometime labels only have the DV in mg without a percent sign. Also, nutrients like calcium, trans fat, and protein are often only listed in grams. The FDA has a handy chart that breaks down each nutrient’s daily value target.

3. Avoid These Ingredients: Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium.

When reading a nutrition facts label, what constitutes “low fat” or “free of cholesterol/sodium?” Typically, it means when there are fats <3g (including trans and saturated fats), cholesterol <20mg, and sodium <5g per serving. “Low in calories” simply means 25% fewer calories than its typical counterpart. Don’t be fooled, these claims can be misleading! In fact, most health experts recommend less than 2.3g daily of sodium daily.

To understand the health value of a food when looking at a nutrition facts label, keep a close eye on these ingredients.


4. Checklist for Buying Carbohydrates (Starchy Vegetables, Fruits, Beans, Whole Grains).

  1. Each serving size on the nutrition facts label should be 150 calories or less.
  2. There is at least 1g of fiber for every 10g of total carbs.
  3. Trans fats cannot be listed on the nutrition label.
  4. The grams of fiber must exceed the grams of sugar.

5. Checklist for Buying “Accessories” (Healthy Fats, Condiments, Dressings, Beverages).

  1. Each serving size should be less than 40 calories per tablespoon.
  2. Cannot contain salt or sugar in the first two ingredients.

Pro Tip: Avoid buying any foods with unpronounceable ingredients on the nutrition facts label. Ingredients like sucralose and aspartame should be avoided. There’s a reason why there are no food labels on an apple or cauliflower – whole foods don’t need any introduction! 

We hope the tips help you better understand nutrition facts labels. For more insight into what healthy foods to eat, click learn more below and we’ll dive deep into what are the healthiest foods.

The Ultimate Healthy Food Guide And Shopping List (PDF)

Do you ever wonder which foods have the highest nutritional quality or "bang for their buck?" Check out our guide and prepare for success before your next grocery store visit. We list our pantry staples, and healthy foods in order of the highest nutrition value. 

Or, download for free.

additional reading

  • 13 Grocery Shopping Tips Nutritionists Swear By – Women’s Health Magazine – “Fortified foods aren’t necessarily healthy—some are highly refined and lacking in nutrients. If they have to convince you they’re healthy, they’re probably not.” —Katie Cavuto, M.S., R.D., the dietician for the Phillies and the Flyers
  • The Case Against Juicing Is Stronger Than Ever – TIME Magazine – “While your body likes the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants [in juice], juices lack fiber and don’t require chewing, so they’re less satiating than whole produce,” explains New York City-based dietitian Cynthia Sass.
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