Unfortunately the nutrition information provided on food packaging can sometimes be a wild and confusing place.  The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was enacted into law in 1990 so that Americans could be provided with consistent information on what was inside their packaged foods.  However it can be a big challenge to understand what that information means and how it applies to you!

Here we’ll go through some of the pertinent information provided on a nutrition label, and talk about what it means to you.  There is also a video below hosted by the lovely nutritionist Shaekira Collins that takes you through the same information.

Serving size:  Check out this number first!  The nutrition information provided applies to a particular serving size.  If you are eating double the amount of the serving size listed, make sure you double all the information contained on the label.  For example if you plan to eat 1 cup of popcorn instead of the standard ½ cup serving, you will be eating double the calories listed on the label.

Calories:  This is the total amount of calories within the serving size.  The amount of calories you should eat in a day depends on your size and activity level.  The best way to figure out how many calories you should eat is to talk with a nutritionist!

Fat:  The first number here is the total amount of fat within the serving size, followed by a breakdown of types of fat.  For a discussion on the differences of types of fat, see this older post.

Sodium:  This is the amount of salt contained within a food.  Packaged foods are often very high in sodium, which can result in high blood pressure and stress on your cardiovascular system.

Protein:  This number is the total amount of protein contained within the serving size.  Protein is good for keeping you full for a long time and fueling your muscles, so look for a higher amount!

Vitamins & Minerals:  The percentages in here compare the amount of nutrients within the food to the Daily Recommended Intake from the Institute of Medicine.  If these numbers are very high (for example 500%), the food has been fortified or enriched.  This means the nutrients have been added into the food during processing.  We’ll discuss enrichment and fortification more in a future post, that’s a whole subject unto itself!
It’s important to keep in mind that food companies are allowed a 20% margin of error in these measurements, and the numbers provided are often slightly lower than what is actually contained in the food.  A 2010 Tufts University study showed that a number of frozen dinners contained an average of 8% more calories than what was claimed on the label.  My husband is a chemistry professor, and he uses a calorimeter in his labs on occasion to measure the calorie content of different foods.  He has found that foods consistently contain more calories than what is stated on the label.

Remember it’s best to eat a diet with foods close to how they are found in nature, so avoid packaged foods when possible.  Save your money and your health by shopping in the bulk and produce aisles instead!

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