A Simple Guide to Reading a Nutrition Facts Label

Evaluating vitamins, serving size, ingredients, and more

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Your ability to read a nutrition facts label will aid you tremendously in knowing what nutrients you are eating, plus help you with body composition changes you want to make. Professor Ormsbee explains how.

Studying nutritional facts on label
Key to understanding the nutritional value of the packaged food you eat is understanding how to read the nutrition facts label. Photo By Stephen VanHorn / Shutterstock

Serving Size and Food Labels

When you read a nutrition facts label, the first thing to look for is the serving size, located at the top-left corner of the label. The serving size is important since the percentages of nutritional information stated on the label are based on it.

For example, suppose you’re looking at the nutritional label for macaroni and cheese. If the label shows that a serving is only one cup, and you eat two cups of the food, then you need to multiply everything on the label by two. 

Next, examine the total number of calories for the given serving size, located at the top of the label. This gives you an idea as to how much this product is going to contribute to your entire day’s intake. 

The quantity of calories is less important than the quality of calories, but at some point you need to be aware of it and make sure you’re not eating too much or too little to support your goals. Though Professor Ormsbee is not a big fan of counting calories, he says that when just starting out, it can be an effective tool until you get the hang of what foods make you feel good, perform well, and improve your body composition.

Getting Your Nutrients

On the nutrition facts label, just below where the total calories are listed, you’ll see a list of all the nutrients provided per serving, including total fat and the types of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars, and protein. All these values are given in grams and also in a percent daily value, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

The label provides consumers with a general estimate of how much one serving of the food will contribute to the daily recommendations for each nutrient based on a 2,000-calorie diet. If you eat more or fewer than 2,000 calories per day, these percentages will also change. 

For example, if you eat more than 2,000 calories, the percentage of your daily diet listed on the label will decrease, and if you eat less than 2,000 calories, then the percentage listed on the label will increase. In general, the percentage daily values are useful for people, but in particular, they are valuable in pointing out red flags—when certain nutrients are either extremely high or extremely low, or nonexistent.

At the bottom of the food label, you will see the percentage amounts of certain vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. This information gives you a better idea of the nutrient density of the food item. Healthier food items are indicated by higher percentage values of nutrients in ratio to the calorie amount listed on the label.

Evaluating Ingredients

On a nutrition facts label, the food item contains the most of whatever ingredients are listed at the top of the list. The food item contains the least amount of whatever ingredients are listed at the bottom of the list. 

On the label, you would want to see natural or unprocessed ingredients appearing at the beginning of the list. Some people refer to this as names that you can read and pronounce. 

“I agree to an extent, but sometimes, there are just long names in a perfectly fine food to eat,” Professor Ormsbee said. “I think it’s a good idea, though, to choose foods with as few ingredients as possible in order to have a better idea of how processed the food is that you’re eating. But today, almost everything is processed to some degree—this is usually for food safety—so choose foods that are as minimally processed as you can.”

The ingredients list of a food label also helps you to identify anything that could trigger an allergy. Be careful because the front label advertising needs to be compared to the small print on the Nutrition Facts label about where the particular product was processed. 

“In our research, we always tell potential subjects if the food or supplements we are asking them to consume were produced in a factory that co–processed any potential allergenic foods like wheat or shellfish,” Professor Ormsee said. “Just keep in mind that if you are unsure about a food or a name on the label, it’s better to stick with the motto of ‘when in doubt, leave it out.'”

Changes to Nutritional Labeling

Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, proposed a change to the nutrition facts label. The new label was proposed in order to identify a few specific things. 

Serving sizes are now going to be listed as bigger and bolder; they are also updated to reflect more realistic serving sizes. For example, right now, ice cream has a serving size of just half a cup. The changes would increase the serving size to a more realistic size of one cup. 

Likewise, for soda, instead of an 8-ounce (oz.) serving, it will be 12 or 20 oz., which is the amount people typically drink. The calories will be listed in a larger font, and added sugars must be listed on the label. 

There will be other small changes to reflect current nutrition and food science. These changes should be improvements in helping you to quickly read a nutrition facts label and to understand more about what you’re eating. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 277 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.