How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label

By Christine Hronec 

You would think that with all the food choices available in any given supermarket, it would easy for people to make healthy decisions. An ideal diet is about choosing healthy ingredients based off of real whole foods instead of heavily processed foods with questionable quality. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The problem is that most people do not know what to look for when it comes to making educated food decisions. How much fat is ok? Is sugar bad? How many carbs are ok? Does protein really matter? Wait, what are net carbs and do I need to worry about that? Is this many calories ok? Wait, doesn’t fat make you fat? 

Food marketers are notorious for promoting the concept of health with clever packaging and buzzwords but that does not mean that the macros of that item are going to be in line with your health goals. For example, a candy bar typically regarded as a “bad” food choice may have the same exact macros as a smoothie, which is typically regarded as a “healthy” choice. Instead of guessing if a food is a suitable choice for your goals, you can base your food choices based off of science instead of speculation. The first step towards aware eating is learning how to read a nutrition facts label. If you can’t measure something, it can’t be improved.  

In the United States, the food and drug administration (FDA) requires that all packaged and processed foods have a standardized set of information available to consumers known as “Nutrition Facts.” This panel of information initially introduced in the early 1990’s after nearly a century of legislation and regulation to ensure food safety, identity, and purity. People look at labels for differing reasons, but for the purpose of this book, we want to examine nutrition labels for only 4 key items:  

  1. Serving size 
  2. Total Fat 
  3. Total Carbs 
  4. Protein 

There are many foods that do not have a nutrition facts label (i.e. fresh produce, meat, etc). Real whole foods like the ones included in the meal plans of this book need to be looked up from a trusted and reliable online database or nutrition app. Traditional dieting in the last 25 years has been primarily based on the concept of reading nutrition labels from the premise of calories only. The macros approach is not concerned with calorie counting, instead we are interested in only 3 things:  

  1. Protein in grams 
  2. Carbs in grams 
  3. Fats in Grams 

By tracking the amounts one consumes of these three nutrients on a daily basis is the key to hitting your physique and health goals. When you track macros against daily macronutrient goals for protein, carbs, and fats, your daily calories are fixed as a result of counting your macros. This approach is not a diet, although it can be used to drop weight. The goal is to focus on WHAT the calories you consume are comprised of.  

 

 1. Serving Size  

     When following the macros approach, the most important factor on the nutrition facts label is the serving size.  Always carefully review the portion size listed on the label to become visually familiar with the visual volume of certain foods. There is a learning curve associated with this way of eating where one learns not only the breakdown of the caloric content of food, but also the visual volume associated with typical serving sizes for each macronutrient. If you are unaware of how small the stated portion size is for a food that you are typically used to eating in larger volumes, this experience can be a rude awakening. Unfortunately, a lot of “diet” and “weight loss” programs want you to learn a new system of points or Tupperware containers to keep your portions under control instead of teaching you the fundamentals of what foods are made of to make educated decisions for yourself. 

    The portion size that is consumed should always be compared to the serving size listed on the label. If you are consuming a protein shake that you purchased from a convenient store, you are most likely planning on consuming the entire shake, however some food marketing companies will cleverly advertise a serving size that may not be representative of what you would actually eat in order to make label claims that would draw your attention based on a smaller or in some cases larger serving size. For example, a food brand may want to highlight that there is 20 grams of protein per serving in a protein powder as this is a decent amount of protein and an attractive sales feature. However they may not want to draw your attention to the fact that the serving size of the product is over 50 grams and the product contains over 30 grams of carbs per serving as well. The typical consumer would see the price point of the product and see all the protein they are getting but not realize the context of that “20 grams of protein.”  

    Another example is a pint of ice cream where the typical person will sit down and consume the entire pint in one sitting thinking that the nutrition facts are for the entire pint. Unfortunately, typical nutrition facts are for a ½ cup serving where there are 4 servings per container. A food brand in this instance would much rather say that their product contains ~300 calories per servings instead of a whopping ~1200 calories when the serving size, calories, and all the other nutrients are multiplied by the number of servings per container.

     

    2. Total Fat  

    The daily allowance for fat recommended by the FDA is 65g of fat per day based on a 2000-calorie diet. This value is for a typical American diet and does not account for fat recommendations for specialized diet protocols like the ketogenic diet, which is an exception to this rule. Eating more than 20% of the suggested daily allowance from fat in one meal is acceptable, however one should be mindful that of all the macros, fat adds up the fastest because it is the most concentrated energy source.  

    For a frame of reference, 20% of full days worth of fat is approximately 13g. That is about one tablespoon of olive oil or nut butter. Which, by volume may not seem like a lot of food, however it should be cautioned that dressings, condiments, and cooking methods can easily overshoot the total fat one consumes in a day. Anything substantially greater than 13g of fat in a single serving is still okay as long as the daily total is kept in check. When consuming any foods that do not have a nutrition facts panel clearly stating the macros per serving, it is advised to look up the macros on an online database. If you are unsure of the cooking method, it is always best to assume that fats were used unless you specifically requested that they are not. Once you become accustomed to tracking macros you will begin to be able to taste the difference in foods based on their cooking method (i.e. if sugar in in a sauce, if fat was used to prepare the meat, etc.).  

     

    3. Total Carbohydrates*  

    According to the FDA the recommended daily allowance for carbs is 300grams per day based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. While carbs are not bad, they tend to add up quickly in processed foods. Just because the FDA says you can have up to 300 grams of carbs per day that value needs to be adjusted based on your personal goals (see chapter on how to calculate your macros) as this value will vary greatly based on how frequently you work out, your daily activity level, your age, sex, height, weight, goal weight, and the rate at which you want to reach that goal.  

    There are 3 types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and fiber.  The quality of the type of carb one is consuming makes a big difference in this case and this will be discussed in depth in the chapter on carbohydrates. Carbs can come from a variety of healthy food sources such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, rice, and pasta. At 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates are not as energy dense as fat but are the bodies first source of energy in the form of glucose. Added sugars will be included on the Nutrition Facts label in 2018. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming no more than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars.   

    • You can subtract the fiber grams from this amount to get yourNet Carbs. Net carbs are the one’s your body can actually use for energy, but some just track total carbs to keep things simpler. For the purpose of this book, only total carbohydrates will be used and not net carbs 

     

    4. Protein  

    The new 2018 nutrition facts label does not have a recommended daily value on protein, where the current version recommends 50g of protein per day based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. At 4 grams of protein per serving the current RDV is nowhere near the amount of protein needed to support lean, defined, muscle mass. In order to effectively drop body fat while preserving lean muscle mass, a general rule of thumb is to consume approximately 1 gram of protein per pound body weight per day. This is an adequate baseline to get started with macro counting, however the ideal amount for your specific needs may range anywhere from 0.7 to 1.5g per pound of body weight.  

    In order to lose stubborn body fat without compromising one’s muscle tone is all about consuming sufficient protein on a daily basis. Of the three macronutrients, protein is the only one that contains nitrogen in its chemical composition. Carbohydrates and fats contain only carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. In order for the body to utilize fat for fuel, a positive nitrogen balance is necessary for this to occur, hence the value and importance of higher protein diets. Unfortunately, the FDA bases its guidelines on nitrogen balancing needed to support the body’s fundamental bodily processes and DNA generation. This baseline protein target does not account for protein’s role in preserving lean muscle tissue when one is dropping body fat. There are no formally issued guidelines from the FDA on advising the amount of protein needed to regulate stress, support exercise, or stabilize blood sugar.  

    The average person does not get anywhere near the correct amount of protein to support a real change in one’s ratio of lean muscle mass to body fat. Even if you eat “healthy” foods, getting the right amount of protein takes intentional effort to select the right food choices that will allow you to hit these goals. On average, typical restaurant food tends to be prepared with higher amounts of fats and carbs and significantly lower amounts of protein. Once you realize how “off” typical foods are, it can be challenging for most people to rethink their nutrition choices. This is where intentional planning comes into play, but it all starts with an awareness of the nutrient content of foods that are typically consumed. Even if one gets 20g of protein at breakfast, lunch, AND dinner that amount is only gracing the minimum amount to hit the FDA’s recommended daily allowance.   

     

    Changes to the Nutrition Facts Labels 

    Now that we have a basic understanding of what to look for on a nutrition facts panel when it comes to macros, it should be noted that the government has formally announced that that will be required changes to the labels. These changes have zero effect on how one should track their macros, but there are a few changes that should be noted. The overall initiative for these changes was conceived during the Obama era with Michelle Obama’s programs targeted at making improvements related to childhood obesity. While these are huge changes, it is still imperative that conscious thought is given to what one is consuming, how much is being consumed, and what that food is made of for one to ultimately experience lasting improvements in ones health. Notable changes include: 

     

    1. Serving Sizes- Food manufacturers will be required to list realistic serving sizes, instead of manipulating the nutrition facts based on partial portions that are not typically consumed.    
    1. Added Sugar- Total carbohydrates are broken down into dietary fiber and sugars. However the amount of sugar that is naturally occurring in a food compared to sugar that was intentionally added to the food product has not been made available to consumers. The amount of added sugar will be required to be broken out as a separate line item. In addition, the FDA has defined a recommended daily value of sugar for the first time. 
    1. Calories- In order to draw additional mindfulness of the caloric content of food, the font size of calories is required to be substantially larger compared to the rest of the label information.   

     

    Reading Nutrition Facts Labels- Rounding Rules 

    One might be quite surprised to see that nutrition facts labels do not always add up correctly. In a perfect world, one should be able to take the grams listed of each macronutrient and multiply it by its calories per gram to yield the total listed calories as follows: 

    Total Calories = [Total Fat (g) x 9 cal/g ] + [Total Carbs (g) x 4 cal/g] + [Protein (g) x 4 cal/g] 

    If there is a discrepancy in the total calories on the label compared to what you come up with on your own by following this equation, the manufacturer most likely followed a variety of rounding rules allowed by the FDA on packaged foods. For example, looking at the nutrition label panel on the back of a packet of Quaker Oats maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal: 

    This product has 160 calories. Meaning, if this oatmeal was poured into a dish and set on fire and burn completely, this reaction would generate 160 kilocalories (remember: food calories are kilocalories) -- enough energy to raise the temperature of 160 grams of water by 1 degree Celsius.  

    On a biological level, the food will be burned through a series of metabolic processes, where carbohydrates will breakdown into glucose and other sugars, where the fats will breakdown into glycerol and fatty acids, and proteins will breakdown into amino acids. These molecules are then transported via the bloodstream to the cells. This energy from these molecules is then utilized immediate use or it is stored. Excess energy that is not immediately used will be stored as body fat. Body fat is metabolized when it reacts with oxygen to release the stored energy.  

    In this example, a closer look at the nutrition facts panel shows that this oatmeal contains 2 grams of fat, 4 grams of protein and 32 grams of carbohydrates. This yields a total of 162 calories (Food manufacturers have a tendency to round down to the nearest 10 calories ). Of these 162 calories, 18 come from fat (9 cal x 2 g), 16 come from protein (4 cal x 4 g) and 128 come from carbohydrates (4 cal x 32 g).  

    Total Fat= 2 (g) x 9 cal/g = 18] + [Total Carbs- 32 (g) x 4 cal/g]=128 + [Protein 4(g) x 4 =16cal/g] = 162 total calories 

    It should be noted that there are times when the macros will not add up to the total calories due to the rounding rules set forth by the FDA that allow food manufacturers to make certain claims. If you are tracking and counting macros, realize that there will be times that the values on food labels will not always add up in terms of total calories. It is advised to focus ONLY the number of grams of each macro and to expect a certain level of variance. Do not stress out if macros and calories are off by +/-5%. This list of rounding rules provides guidance of the kinds of rules one can expect to see for these items:  

     

    Source: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm064932.htm