How to Read a Nutrition Label

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

What you don't notice on nutrition labels can hurt you

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Remember being a kid and tearing open the cereal box to get the special decoder ring? Today's cereals should come with a ring you can use to crack the code of their nutrition labels. For those who understand its secrets, the nutrition label holds valuable information for winning the war on fat. Since there is no special ring, we'll give you the skinny on reading nutrition labels.

Beware of the Front Label Tease

"Heart Healthy!" "Enriched With Calcium and Vitamins!" "Low fat!" The front label is where manufacturers can say whatever they want. But when you look at the nutrition facts on the back you might wonder if the two labels refer to the same product. "Speed read the front label and go straight to the nutrition facts," says Kerry McLeod, author of The Last Diet Book Standing. She tells WebMD why the following front label terms should be red flags:

  • Fortified, enriched, added, extra, and plus. This means nutrients such as minerals and fiber have been removed and vitamins added in processing. Look for 100% whole-wheat bread, and high-fiber, low-sugar cereals.
  • Fruit drink. This means there's probably little or no real fruit and a lot of sugar. Instead look for products that say "100% Fruit Juice."
  • Made with wheat, rye, or multigrains. These products have very little whole grain. Look for the word "whole" before the grain to ensure that you're getting a 100% whole-grain product.
  • Natural. The manufacturer started with a natural source, but once it's processed the food may not resemble anything natural. Look for "100% All Natural" and "No Preservatives."
  • Organically grown, pesticide-free, or no artificial ingredients. Trust only labels that say "Certified Organically Grown."
  • Sugar-free or fat-free. Don't assume the product is low-calorie. The manufacturer compensated with unhealthy ingredients that don't taste very good and, here's the kicker, have no fewer calories than the real thing.

The Nutrition Facts Label

Serving Size

Start your label reading adventure by looking at the "serving size" printed right under "nutrition facts." Portion control is an important part of weight management, but don't expect food manufacturers to make it easy for you. Pop-Tarts, for instance, come two to a package. The label says one serving is 200 calories. The catch is that's for "one pastry."

Label reading is easy when a package states there are one or two servings. It's the fractions that will send you to the calculator. For example, the label on a 6-ounce can of StarKist Tuna in water says one serving is 2 ounces (drained) so you might think the can holds three servings. But because you drain off some weight, the can actually contains 2.5 servings.

And how realistic are those printed serving sizes anyway? The South Beach diet recipe for South Beach Chopped Salad With Tuna calls for a 6-ounce can of water-packed tuna, and that's for a single serving of salad.

Calories and Calories From Fat

Next you'll see how many calories are in a serving and how many of those calories come from fat. A 2-ounce serving of tuna has 60 calories, 5 of which come from fat. If you eat the whole can, multiply these amounts by 2.5 for a total of 150 calories and 12.5 fat grams.

"Trans fats sabotage good cholesterol and boost bad cholesterol."

Nutrients by Weight and Percentage of Daily Value (%DV)

If you're counting fat or carbohydrate grams, you're familiar with this part of the label. It shows how much of each nutrient is in a single serving by weight in grams and by %DV. This symbol refers to the recommended daily allowance for a nutrient based on a 2,000-calorie diet (you'll see that some nutrients, such as sugar and protein, don't have a %DV). Fats are listed as "Total Fat" and also broken down so you can see how much is saturated fat, i.e., the kind you especially want to limit. Unfortunately, the label doesn't distinguish between natural sugars, such as those found in fruit, and added sugar. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition says the first nutrients listed on the label --total fat, cholesterol, and sodium -- are the ones most Americans get enough of or too much of in their diets. And one of the most overlooked nutrients essential for good health is fiber.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are listed by %DV only. Pay particular attention to vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. They're listed first. The FDA says most Americans don't get enough in their diets.


Ingredients are listed in order from the greatest amount to the least. Just how much of a "fruit breakfast bar" is fruit? McLeod advises leaving the product on the shelf if the terms "enriched wheat flour" or "sugar" appear before "fruit." She also offers this rule of thumb: the fewer the ingredients, the better. "If there's a long list of scary ingredients you can't pronounce, you might want to put it back." Some labels also show you the total recommended daily allowances of nutrients for a 2,000-calorie diet.

The Important Term That's Not on Labels

A desire to lose weight may be the main reason you pay attention to what you eat. But eating to promote good health should be a consideration as well. Labels can help. In 1993, the FDA required manufacturers to list saturated fat and cholesterol on nutrition labels. Now the issue is trans fats.

Studies show these trans fats sabotage good cholesterol and boost bad cholesterol, triglycerides, and lipoproteins that clog arteries and cause heart disease. They're also suspected of playing a role in diabetes and cancer. But you won't find trans fat listed on many nutrition labels, at least not yet. The FDA has given manufacturers until January 2006 to list them. Some manufacturers have already complied. Meanwhile, the code words to watch for in the label's ingredients list are "partially hydrogenated."

Trans fats are everywhere you find processed foods. McLeod, who lives in Gainesville, Fla., reads -- and understands -- nutrition labels. But she didn't always. "I thought I was eating nutritious foods." She was shocked when she pulled the packaged foods from her pantry and refrigerator. "I threw out most of it. Trans fat was in almost every single packaged food item in my house."

Label Reading on the Run

On your way home from work you stop at the grocery store to pick up dinner. Researching labels isn't a priority. You want to grab the goods and go. Here's a label-reading shortcut. First, ignore the "sell" on the front. Go straight to the back and look at %DV. According to the FDA, you should look for nutrients you want, such as fiber, to represent 20%DV or more, and nutrients you should limit, such as fat, to represent 5% or less. Next look at serving size. If you'll eat twice that amount, then double the %DV numbers, or if you'll eat half the amount, then halve the %DV numbers. Remember that DV is based on 2,000 calories a day. In general a diet containing 1,000 to 1,200 calories per day is what is recommend for most women trying to lose weight and a diet containing between 1,200 and 1,600 should be chosen for most men trying to lose weight.

When you're in a hurry, maybe the best you can do is compare three brands of the same product, such as chili. Thankfully, manufacturers tend to standardize serving sizes. For chili, it's 1 cup. So when you check the different brands for %DV it's easy to see which packs more of the nutrients you want and less of those you don't want.

SOURCES: Nutrition Action Health Letter 28, No. 6, July/August 2001. Kerry McLeod, author, The Last Diet Book Standing, Gainesville, Fla. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute web site. U. S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition web site.

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