How to Read the New Nutrition Facts Tables Without Your Head Exploding

We all know that little box on the side of packaged foods, right?

The Nutrition Facts table or, as I like to call it, Swahili.

The purpose of it is to help you make better nutrition decisions. When you can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, you should be able to eat better, right?

Except, it’s confusing. Yeah, there are the calories, the carbs, the sodium – But what numbers should I be looking at and how do I know which ones are too high or too low?

Whether you like the Nutrition Facts table or not (and I say – it could be written in plain English), let’s make sure you get the most out of it, since it’s here to stay.

Here’s my four-step crash course on reading the Nutrition Facts table.

 Step 1: Serving Size

The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts table is to figure out the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. Tricky little boogers, aren’t they?

All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.

Cut to the next few years when food labels will change. The FDA finally realized that we don’t eat, like 2 Oreos or 9 potato chips and decided that food labels must match with the quantities that Americans actually consume.

They can’t hide the real amount of sugar you’re getting in a Dr. Pepper or the sodium in those Doritos.

This will make it easier to compare foods…no more artificially small servings.

Let’s use an example – plain, unsalted walnuts from Costco. (it’s probably a 90-lb bag, right?)

As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30 g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.

FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts). I did this with my wine – 5 oz is a serving.

I’m fairly sure I was drinking at least twice that, if not more. I like my serving better.

Step 2: % Daily Value

The % Daily Value (%DV) is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. Ideally, you will get 100% DV for each nutrient every day (yeah…um..I live in the opposite of the ideal world).

This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day.

NOTE: Since children are smaller and have different nutritional needs if a type of food is intended solely for children under the age of 4, then those foods use a child’s average nutrition needs for the %DV.

The %DV is a guideline, not a rigid rule. You don’t need to add all of your %DV up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot.

NOTE: Not every nutrient has a %DV. You can see it’s missing for things like cholesterol, sugar, and protein. This is because there isn’t an agreed “official” %DV for that nutrient. The good news is that the new Nutrition Facts tables will include a %DV for sugar. Keep your eyes out for that.

Step 3: Middle of the table (e.g. Calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, and protein)

Calories are pretty straight forward. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts has 200 calories.

Fat is bolded for a reason. That 19 g of fat (29% DV) is total fat. That includes the non-bolded items underneath it. Here, 19 g of total fat includes 1.5 g saturated fat, (19 g – 1.5 g = 17.5 g) unsaturated fat, and 0 g trans fat. (Yes, unsaturated fats including mono- and poly-unsaturated are not on the label, so you need to do a quick subtraction).

Cholesterol, sodium, and potassium are all measured in mg. Ideally, aim for around 100% of potassium and sodium each day. It’s easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made, restaurant foods, or snacks. Keep an eye on this number if sodium can be a problem for you (e.g. if your doctor mentioned it, if you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, etc.).

Carbohydrate, like fat, is bolded because it is total carbohydrates. It includes the non-bolded items underneath it like fiber, sugar, and starch (not shown). Here, 30 g of walnuts contain 3 g of carbohydrates; that 3 g are all fiber. There is no sugar or starch. And as you can see, 3 g of fiber is 12% of your daily value for fiber.

🥜Proteins, like calories, are pretty straight forward as well. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts contains 5 g of protein.

Step 4: Bottom of the table (e.g. vitamins & minerals)

The vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. The new labels will list potassium, calcium, and iron. Yes, potassium will drop from the middle of the table to the bottom, and both vitamins A & C will become optional.

Manufacturers can add other vitamins and minerals to the bottom of their Nutrition Facts table (this is optional). And you’ll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others do.

The Bottom Line

I know it’s hard to follow sometimes, but hopefully this crash course in the Nutrition Facts table was helpful. While you can take it or leave it when it comes to making food decisions, it’s here to stay. And it will change slightly over the next few years.

Do you have questions about it? Have you seen the new labels with a %DV for sugar? If so, leave me a comment below.

 Recipe (walnuts): Delicious & Super-Easy Walnut Snack

Serves 1

8 walnut halves
4 dates, pitted

Instructions

Make a “date sandwich” by squeezing each date between two walnut halves.

Serve & enjoy!

Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Tip: Try with pecans instead.

Sources:

Nutrition C for FS and A. Labeling & Nutrition – Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm.

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