The Nutrition Facts label can provide you with lots of useful information—as long as you know how to read it correctly.
I recently wrote a post about the difference between a serving and a portion. I explained that a serving of food is the official amount that’s listed on the label, while a portion is the amount that you actually eat. While your portion may not always be the same size as the official serving, all of the nutrition information that’s listed on the Nutrition Facts panel does refer back to these serving sizes. That’s why getting familiar with the serving size is the first step in decoding the Nutrition Facts label.
Nutrition Facts Label Step 1: Portion Size
Many people assume, often incorrectly, that small packages of cookies, crackers or chips, or moderately sized beverage containers are single servings. But that isn’t always the case.
As I mentioned, the current official serving size of a beverage is 8 ounces (about 250mL). But many drinks come in much larger cans and bottles, and they might contain two or more servings. So, if you guzzle a 16-ounce/500mL bottle of sweetened tea, you’ll be drinking two servings. And that means you’ll need to double all the information on the nutrition facts panel (like the calories and the sugar content, for instance) to figure out how much you’ve taken in.
Similarly, for labeling purposes, a serving of potato chips is one ounce (30g), which is only about 15 chips. But if you’re eating out of a large bag, chances are you’re eating several servings. So, you’ll need to count or weigh your chips in order to figure out how many calories you’ve actually eaten.
Nutrition Facts Label Step 2: Nutrients, Cholesterol and Fiber
Labeling for protein, fat and carbohydrate content is also provided on a per-serving basis. Same goes for sugar, fiber, cholesterol and sodium. As with the example above, you need to know how many servings you’re consuming so you can estimate your intake of these nutrients accurately.
Keep in mind that the total carbohydrate that’s listed includes all forms of carbohydrate—starch, sugar and fiber. And below that number you’ll find separate listings for fiber and sugar. The listing for sugar lumps together both added sugars as well as naturally occurring sugars (like the natural sugar in milk or fruit). So, it’s not always easy to tell where the sugar is coming from without looking at the actual ingredients list. But an upcoming change in the Nutrition Facts label—due to take effect over the next two years—will make this easier. The new label will include a separate line for “added sugars” to distinguish them from the naturally occurring ones.
Nutrition Facts Label Step 3: % Daily Value
The other thing you’ll see on the label is a column with “% Daily Value.” Daily Values are standard recommended levels of intake for various nutrients that are established by the US Food and Drug Administration for use on food labels. The information in this column tells you what percentage of the recommended intake for each nutrient is found in a serving of food. Keep in mind that these values are based on a 2000 calorie diet, which means they may not apply to everyone. But even if a 2000 calorie diet doesn’t apply to you, you can still use the % Daily Value to see if a particular food is high or low in a nutrient you are interested in.
Nutrition Facts Labels – Comparing Similar Foods Can Be Tricky
For the most part, reading a label is fairly straightforward, but it all comes back to the serving sizes. I’ve found that you need to look at your serving sizes very closely, especially if you’re trying to compare the nutrition facts among similar foods.
Let’s take frozen pizza as an example. A serving of frozen pizza is established by weight, not by the slice. The reasoning goes like this: If every serving is more or less the same weight, it’s supposed to make it easier to make comparisons among a variety of products.
But when I tried to compare the Nutrition Facts among several varieties of pizza, all the same brand, this is what I found:
- Thin Crust Pepperoni Pizza – serving size: ¼ pizza (122g) Calories: 310 Fat: 15g
- Garlic Bread Pepperoni Pizza – serving size: 1/6 pizza (145g) Calories: 380 Fat: 17g
- Stuffed Crust Pepperoni Pizza – serving size: 1/5 pizza (150g) Calories: 380 Fat: 16g
- Thin and Crispy Pepperoni Pizza – serving size: ½ pizza (150g) Calories: 370 Fat: 19g
Now, admittedly, the weight of the servings, the calories and fat are fairly comparable. But you’ve got servings ranging from 1/6 pizza to ½ pizza and everything in between. (And, 1/5 of a pizza? Who cuts a pizza into 5 pieces?) Sure, ½ of a “Thin and Crispy” pizza is 370 calories. But if you assume the same serving size holds true for the “Garlic Bread” version, you’ll wind up eating 770 extra calories you hadn’t counted on.
You’ll see a similar thing with cold cereal: the portion sizes and the weights of the servings are all over the place. The reasoning behind this is a lot more complicated, but has to do with the fact that some cereals are relatively light (like puffed cereals or flakes), and some (like granola) are more dense.
I’ve seen serving sizes for cereal as small as ¼ cup (30g) for granola and 1¼ cups (15g) for puffed wheat. But here’s the thing: that ¼ cup of granola has about 140 calories, while the official serving of puffed wheat has only 55. Since most of us pour ourselves “a bowl” of cereal, what really matters is how big your portion is. If you always pour the same volume of cereal into your bowl—whether it’s granola or puffed wheat—you need to know that the granola has almost 13 times more calories than the puffed wheat.
Nutrition Facts Labels Bottom Line: Know Your Portions and Compare to Servings
The bottom line is this: the Nutrition Facts label can really help to guide you to make better choices—as long as you are able to compare the amounts of food you are actually eating to the serving sizes that are listed on the package.
So practice, practice, practice. Weigh and measure your foods with a scale and measuring cups for a while until you get good at “eyeballing” your own portions. Because keeping track of your calories won’t do you much good if you don’t know how much you’re really eating.
By Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training
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