How to Decode Nutritional Labels

In this article, you will find:

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Remember this waxy guy? Together with its partner in crime—fat—dietary cholesterol is a key player in raising blood cholesterol and therefore increasing your risk for heart disease. You'll notice that the cholesterol content of a food product is measured in milligrams. Budget your foods and eat less than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day.

Understand the following claims when they appear on food labels:

  • Cholesterol-free Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol.
  • Low-cholesterol Twenty milligrams (or less) of cholesterol.

These cholesterol claims are only allowed when a food product contains 2 grams (or less) of saturated fat as well.


Don't let the terminology confuse you. The label calls it sodium (300 mg reported on the sample label), but most people know it as salt. Remember, sodium is only a component of salt. However, that one component is responsible for water retention and high blood pressure in salt-sensitive people. Limit the amount of high-sodium foods in your diet, and aim for a daily intake of 2,300 milligrams or less.

Here's some sodium lingo and what it means:

  • Sodium-free Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • Low-sodium Less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • Reduced sodium At least 25 percent less sodium than the original food version.

Have you seen the terms "net carbs," "impact carbs," or "effective carbs" on packaged foods recently? this referes to carbohydrates that hav less impact on your blood sugar, such as glycerine, sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, and fiber. The FDA has not approved any of these terms, but food manufacturers continue to use them anyways.

Total Carbohydrate

In What Exactly Is a Carbohydrate?, you became well versed on the various types of carbohydrates. Now you can use the label information to identify whether a food contains a lot of simple sugar or complex carbohydrate.

First, look for the listing titled “Total Carbohydrate.” This will reveal the amount of all types of carbs (simple and complex) in a single serving of a food. Next, look for the smaller listing located underneath “total carbohydrate” titled “Sugars.” This indicates how much simple sugar is in a serving of that particular food. Obviously, the less simple sugar, the better. Now, you're ready to determine the amount of complex carbohydrate in a food by simply subtracting the total carbs from the sugars.

Let's look at the previous label for an example:
Total Carbohydrate 13 grams
Sugars 3 grams

Thse numbers indicate that the majority of carbohydrates are coming from more complex sources, 10 grams to be exact.

Located under "total carbyhydrates" is "dietary fiber." Dietary fiber is predominantly found in carbohydrate-rich foods and includes both soluble and insoluble fiber sources. becuase fiber promotes regularity, along with reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, choose foods with at least 2.5 grams of dietary fiber per serving, and aim for a total intake of 25-35 grams each day.


As you know from Your Personal Protein Requirements, most Americans eat far more protein than they actually need (0.36 grams per pound of body weight). Although some of the best protein sources, unfortunately, do not carry a nutrition label (such as beef, poultry, eggs, and fish), nutrifacts posters are required in meat and produce departments, so ask your grocer and take a look. On the other hand, most dairy products and prepackaged food items do list the grams of protein in a single serving. It's interesting to see that there are even small amounts of protein in foods you might not expect.

Percent Daily Values

Now for the confusing part: what are those “%” signs floating all over the label? They're called Percent Daily Values (DV) and are based on a 2,000-calorie reference diet. In other words, these percentages indicate how much of the RDA for each nutrient is present in a single serving. Of course, your job is to ultimately eat a variety of foods that supply 100 percent of all the nutrients needed. For example, one serving of yogurt provides 35 percent of the daily calcium needed and 0 percent of the iron. It's clearly a great source of calcium, but lousy for iron.

What happens if you eat more or less than 2,000 calories? You can slightly adjust the percentages up or down if you're good with numbers (and extremely motivated). In general, the 2,000-calorie reference diet provides appropriate guidelines for almost everyone (adults and children over 4) to follow.

For total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, choose foods with low percent daily values. On the other hand, you want to choose foods with higher percent DVs for total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, and all vitamins and minerals.

The following are the set daily values. They are specifically used for food labels and are based on a 2,000-calorie reference diet.

Daily Values for Nutritional Items
Food Component Daily Value

Total fat65 grams
Saturated fat20 grams
Cholesterol300 mg
Sodium2,300 mg
Potassium3,500 mg
Total carbohydrate300 grams
Dietary fiber25 grams
Protein50 grams
Vitamin A5,000 IU
Vitamin C60 mg
Calcium1,000 mg
Iron18 mg
Vitamin D400 IU
Vitamin E30 IU
Vitamin K80 mcg
Thiamin1.5 mg
Riboflavin1.7 mg
Niacin20 mg
Vitamin B-62 mg
Folate400 mcg
Vitamin B-126 mcg
Biotin.3 mg
Pantothenic acid10 mg
Phosphorus1,000 mg
Iodine150 mcg
Magnesium400 mg
Zinc15 mg
Copper2 mg
Selenium70 mcg
Manganese2 mg
Chromium120 mcg
Molybdenum75 mcg
Chloride3,400 mg
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