Here's How to Read Nutrition Labels

July 6, 2017

At first glance, nutrition labels can seem like a foreign language or a tricky math problem—unless you’ve got a grip on the basics. And while it may be easier to just grab a snack when you’re rushing to rehearsal, it’s worth taking a closer look to know what you’re getting out of your food. Dance Spirit asked Peggy Swistak, MS, RDN, CD, of Pacific Northwest Ballet, to highlight the most important components of a label, so you’ll know what information to look for (and where to find it).

All labels are based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

  1. Serving size and servings per container: “Many people confuse a product’s serving size with servings per container,” Swistak says. For example, a bag of chips may list the serving size as 10 chips, and the servings per container as 3. This means that if you’re planning on eating the entire bag, you need to multiply the listed numbers by 3—so if there are 100 calories per serving, then the entire bag is actually 300 calories.
  2. Saturated and trans fats: “There are plenty of healthy fats that we need,” Swistak says, “but saturated and trans fats should be avoided.” You can find these under the “Total Fat” category of the label.
  3. Sodium: The recommended Percent Daily Value (%DV) of sodium is less than 2,300 mg a day. Lots of foods that might not seem salty, like cereal, still have substantial sodium content, which can easily cause you to surpass the recommended amount. Make sure to check the amount of sodium, listed in milligrams, and its corresponding %DV.
  4. Sugars: “Sugar is often perceived as the bad guy, but that’s not always the case,” Swistak explains. It’s the added sugars that are the culprit (think honey or agave in a yogurt, or icing on a granola or energy bar). These are often just sugars with no essential nutrients, and end up being “empty” calories. Look out for the total amount of sugar, and “Added Sugars” below it.
  5. Ingredients list: According to Swistak, “the first four ingredients listed are the most important.” Since ingredients are listed in order of weight, the first four make up most of the product. Keep your eye out for ingredients that could potentially have added sugars (like syrups or sweeteners), as well as anything you might have an allergy to.

The numbers on nutrition labels shouldn’t make or break your diet. Use them as a guide to make informed choices about what nutrients you need more (or less) of over the course of a day.

Beneath the Black Bar

You’ll notice a thick black bar near the bottom of a nutrition label. Just beneath it are the vitamins and minerals in the product, as well as their corresponding percentages. These percentages, or the Percent Daily Value (%DV) represent how much of the daily recommended amount of each vitamin or mineral you get per serving. The bottom line? “The bigger the percentages at the bottom of the label, the better the product,” Swistak says.