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Your Cheat Sheet To Understanding Food Labels

Written By PFC Fitness Camp • 4 min read

Are you making health-conscious decisions when it comes to grocery shopping?

Unfortunately, deciphering nutrition labels can be tricky – but it doesn’t have to be! The FDA has designed nutrition fact labels to provide us with the most relevant information about our food. So, how can we make sense of all these numbers and know what to look out for? 

By taking a closer look at the five key areas – Serving size, Calories, Nutrients, Daily Values, and Ingredients – you can begin to make more conscious and informed decisions when it comes to the food choices you make. Let’s break it down and find out!

Serving Size

At the top of any nutrition label will be the serving size as well as how many servings are in a given container. The serving size is based on what an average person consumes and is not necessarily a recommendation on how to eat. Be mindful of how many servings are in a container. For example, many cans of soup are two or three servings per can, so if you are consuming an entire container of soup for a meal, the nutrition values should be multiplied by the number of servings. 


This is the first number that most people look at on a label, however this is not the most important number to review. Check out my blog on “counting calories” for why calories are not the most accurate measure of energy intake or expenditure. Calories are calculated by burning a food and measuring the increase in water temperature. The average calories per macronutrient is 4 kcal per gram of protein and carbohydrates and 9 kcal per gram from fat. Food manufacturers do not burn up each new food product to calculate the calories instead they simply take an estimate of the amounts of each macronutrient present in the food. This creates some inaccuracies and nutrition labels are allowed to have up to 20 percent margin of error for the listed value versus the actual value of nutrients.


At each meal at PFC we want to have a balanced amount of macronutrients. When building a meal look for the following ranges:

      • Protein→ 15-35 g
        • Eating more protein will help you feel more full, maintain blood sugar balance, and maintain your muscle mass. Make sure to get at least 15 g per meal (especially at breakfast!)
      • Fat→ 10-15 g
        • Limit Saturated Fat to less than 5 g per serving 
      • Carbohydrates→ 15-25 g net carbs (total minus the fiber)
        • Dietary Fiber
          • Helps to regulate digestion, improves gut health, and reduces the cholesterol in our blood stream. Aim for higher fiber options (more than 5 g). Oftentimes, this will automatically steer you towards whole grains, beans, lentils, and of course more fruits and vegetables! 
        • Added Sugar 
          • The American Heart Association recommends less than 25 g of added sugar per day for females and less than 36 g a day for men. You will find this number listed under carbohydrates and Total Sugars. Total sugars include natural sugar you may find in fruit and there is currently no daily recommendation for natural sugars. Try to stick to less than 5 g of added sugar for any sauce, protein bar, or other food item. 
      • Sodium 
        • In excess, sodium can raise blood pressure and also negatively affect your heart health. The recommended daily amount is 2300 mg, and therefore aim for each meal to be around 500 mg (assuming 3 meals and one or two snacks). Choose the “no salt added” or “reduced sodium” options on sauces and canned goods. 
      • Other Vitamins and Minerals 
        • The bottom section of a label will contain any vitamins and minerals present in the product. Depending on your individual needs there may be nutrients that you want to be more mindful of, but in general choosing more whole foods and getting a variety throughout the week will help reach your goals in all of these categories. 

Daily Values

The percent Daily Value (%DV) is the reference amounts (expressed in grams or milligrams) of nutrients to consume or not exceed each day.

      • 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low
      • 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high


Listed in order by weight , so first on the list will be most prevalent. Try to choose foods where you can recognize most of the listed ingredients. 

    • Avoid 
      • High fructose corn syrup 
      • Nitrates or sulfates
      • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
      • Modified Corn Starch 
      • Corn, Soybean, or any partially hydrogenated oil 
      • Carrageenan 
      • Sodium benzoate
      • *Sugar Alcohols: erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH). * These substances have been shown to cause GI distress and early studies have even linked some to higher rates of heart attack and stroke.

The bottom line: If you are looking for a simple and quick way to make healthier decisions, Nutrition Labels can be your secret weapon! Between the seductive marketing terms like ‘light’, ‘natural,’ or ‘reduced fat/sodium/etc’, it’s no wonder why it can be hard to trust what’s written on the front of the package. However, you’re not powerless to marketing ploys. The nutrition label on the back of the product can provide reliable information that can help you make healthier decisions. Next time you’re grocery shopping, make sure to read the nutrition label before you buy. It could be the difference between you making a healthy choice and an unhealthy one.

Delany Smith, Certified Nutrition Coach
PFC Nutrition Educator & Dietary Coordinator

Image Source: CDC

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