The nutrients and ingredients in your food People look at food labels for different reasons: grasping vitamin and nutrient intake, monitoring ingredients, deciphering processed food from non-processed, and more. Whatever the reason, many consumers would like to know more about how to use this information more effectively and easily.

Reading nutrition labels gives you facts about the product’s ingredients, important nutrients, and the recommended daily values (DV) of those nutrients. There are two sections to the nutrition information on food labels: the Nutrient Information and the Ingredient List. It’s important to note that the nutrient amounts listed on a nutrition label indicate the amount in one serving, not the total amount in the container (unless specified). To determine the total calories in the whole package, multiply the calories per serving by the total number of servings.

Understanding daily values

Daily values (DV) help evaluate how a particular food fits into your daily meal plan. DVs are average levels of nutrients for a person eating 2,000 calories a day. A food item with a 5 percent DV of fat provides 5 percent of the total fat that a person consuming 2,000 calories a day should eat. Parents need to remember that children often need to eat fewer than 2,000 calories in a day, so keep this in mind and consult your pediatrician for your child’s needs.

Unhealthy culprits

There are a few items listed in the Nutrient Information without a DV percentage: trans fats, protein, and sugars. Trans fat is easy: there is not an agreed upon recommended amount. No amount of trans fat is healthy, but experts cannot yet agree on what amount is—for lack of better words—safe. If you tend to err on the side of caution, just try to have none. 

For protein, a DV percent is required to be listed if a claim is made for protein, such as "high in protein." Otherwise, none is needed unless the food is meant for use by infants and children under age 4. Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern for adults and children over age 4.

Sugars, like trans fats, have no recommendations regarding the total amount to eat in a day. Most health professionals agree that less is more when it comes to sugar. Keep in mind, the sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label include naturally occurring sugars (like those in fruit and milk) as well as those added to a food or drink. Check the ingredient list for specifics on added sugars.

The ingredients list

Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Those in the largest amounts are listed first. This information is particularly helpful to individuals with food sensitivities and allergies, those who wish to limit added sugars, or those who are vegetarians and/or vegan. A good rule of thumb is to scan the first three ingredients, because they are the largest part of what you’re eating. If the first ingredients include refined grains, some sort of sugar or hydrogenated oils, assume the product is unhealthy. Another good rule of thumb is if the ingredients list is longer than 2–3 lines, you can assume that the product is highly processed.