Food Scientist

How to Read a Nutrition Label

Nutrition labels, or nutrition facts panels, are included on nearly all food products. To find the nutrition label, pick up the product from a grocery store shelf and rotate it to the right. The only time the nutrition label is not on the right of the principle display panel is when there is no right side, like on a flexible pouch. Then the nutritional information is on the back.

Nutrition labels provide the consumer with a little nutritional information about the food. Labels are designed to be easy to read and helpful to consumers. But nutrition is a complex thing. Even though nutrition labels try to be straight forward, they are not the easiest tables to read.

Based on a 2000 Calorie Diet

The key to the nutrition label is in the footnote at the bottom of most labels. It states that “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.” Even if the footnote is not included in the nutrition label, it still follows that guideline. Some packages just do not have enough room to include it.

Nutrition Label footnote from A Dash of Science.comAll of the percent daily values (shown in red in the image below) are based on consuming 2000 calories a day. This was created to help people. Instead of remembering how much of each nutrient to eat, consumers just have to aim for 100% in a day. All the nutrients are also listed in grams or milligrams, in case the 2000 calorie diet does not apply.

daily value of a nutrition label from a dash of

Serving Size

The first thing listed on a nutrition label is the serving size and how many servings there are per container. Always look at this information. Some serving sizes will surprise you. For example, a single Granny B’s Cookie (the big sugar cookies with pink frosting) is more than one serving.

serving size on nutrition label from A Dash of Science.comThe serving size is based on a Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC) which is defined by federal law in 21 CFR 101.12. This makes comparing the same product from different brands easier because all of the serving sizes should be the same. Servings are listed in common house units (teaspoon, cup, etc) and may have the metric equivalent  in parenthesis. Some products list a discrete unit (slice, piece, cookie) instead because it makes more sense. Bread is meant to be eaten by the slice, not by how much fits into a cup.

Serving size is important because the rest of the nutrition label shows the amount of nutrients in one serving. For example, in the nutrition label shown previously one serving (1 Tbsp) provides 4% of the recommended daily total carbohydrate. That leaves 96% of total carbohydrate. If three servings are consumed, that is 12% of the total carbohydrates and 88% is left.

pie chart of serving sizes at A Dash of
Total carbohydrates left after consuming
one serving (left) or three servings (right).

5-20 Rule

Getting 100% of all the helpful nutrients each day is a great goal, but keeping track is annoying and time consuming. The 5-20 rule is much simpler. A daily value of 5% or less is considered “low”. A daily value of 20% or greater is considered “high”. Aim for low daily values for all the fats, cholesterol, and sodium (shown in blue below). Aim for high daily values for dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron (highlighted in green). Of course, not every food will fit under this rule. This rule is really a guideline.

nutrients to obtain and nutrients to limit A Dash of

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are listed in the bottom section of the nutrition label. Vitamins A and C, along with calcium and iron have to be included on a nutrition label. Even if all these nutrients have a percent daily value of zero, the label should include a statement saying that the product is not a sufficient source of {insert nutrient}. Other vitamins and minerals can be included as well. If a nutrient is intentionally added to a product (i.e. calcium in orange juice) it has to be included on the nutrition label.

Bonus Info: Regulations

The content and layout of nutrition labels are dictated by law. The mandatory items are shown in the labels in this post. Some items are optional, such as poly and monounsaturated fatty acids, and sugar alcohols. Other items are expressly prohibited, like amino acids. There are rules about calculating calories and percent daily values as well but that is material for another post.

Even the way the label looks is regulated. Type size and line spacing have to fit within a certain range, both upper and lower case letters have to be used, and some items have to be bold. These are just some of the specifications.

As you can see, the government thinks food labels are important. Mistakes can cost a company quite a bit in fines and reprinting costs. Since companies want to avoid these fines, many have positions that focus solely on labels. These professionals make sure that nutrition labels follow all of the regulations.


Feature Photo: Danny de Bruyne

Source:How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label” by the FDA, updated 03/11/2020

The FDA also has some educational videos about food labels.

2 thoughts on “How to Read a Nutrition Label”

  1. Wow, that is really cool! The link to the FDA videos is a really helpful and interesting.

    So, 2000 calories is less than what the recommended consumption for the “average” male and more than the “average” female, right?


    1. According to Krause’s Food & Nutrition Therapy, 12 edition, the average active male should consume 3067 calories minus 10 calories per year of age above 19. The average active female should consume 2403 calories minus 7 calories per year of age above 19. These numbers are for active individuals with average weight and height.

      One reason the diet is based on 2000 is because the number is easy to work with.


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