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Reading Nutrition Labels 101

Ever pick up an item at the grocery store, attempt to read the nutritional information, and immediately feel overwhelmed with all of the numbers and nutrients?! You are definitely not alone so let's go over the basics!

The FDA has recently changed the food labels (which were 20 years old!) in order to reflect the new scientific data. The old label can be seen on there left, and the new label on the right. Food companies are required to switch over to the new label by July of 2018 (although the FDA has proposed to push this back to 2020); however, you may notice that many companies have already begun the switch.


First thing you may notice when you look at the the label is the calories. A calorie is a unit of energy, and the term is typically used to refer to energy consumption via eating and drinking and energy expenditure via physical activities. They appear on both labels but are much more in-your-face in the new labels, which I have mixed feelings about. Like many of you know, I don't count calories because I really try to practice intuitive eating and focus much more on the ingredients rather than the calories, BUT the FDA seems to think that having large, bolded caloric information is important for consumers- so there it is.

HOWEVER, calories from fat no longer exist on the label- thank GOODNESS that we are no longer fat-phobic. Studies have shown that the type of fat that you are consuming matters much more than the calories derived from said fat, which is why the FDA decided to do away with that information.

Serving Size

The FDA made a huuuuuge change to the serving size regulations. Basically with the old labels, serving sizes were (a.) less obvious and (b.) pretty unrealistic. Did you know that the old nutritional information on a bottle of coke that you would get from a vending machine is actually just for about 1/2 of the bottle? I am not a huge soda fan, but if I were to pick one up for the vending machine, I would be drinking the whole thing, not just half! Also, does anyone really just eat 1/2 cup of ice cream? Because that was the old serving size (which they have now increased to 2/3 cup [I still eat more than that but whatever.]).

Not many people know this, but serving sizes are not necessarily recommendations of what you should be eating. By law, they are the portions that, on average, Americans are ACTUALLY eating, NOT what they should be eating. A lot has changed in the last 20 years- people are eating more. Whether that is good or bad is up to you, but I appreciate this realistic change.

As alluded to, serving sizes in general have been changed, with soda serving sizes increasing from 8 ounces to 12 ounces, and ice cream serving sizes increasing from 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup. For products that are meant to be consumed over multiple sittings- think 24-ounce sodas & ice cream pints- companies must now provide a "dual column" label with the single sitting serving size as well as the serving size for the entire container. Sweet.

Percent Daily Value (%DV)

The percentages serve as a quick guide to look and see how much of a macronutrient/vitamin/mineral/etc. that you are ingesting relative to the recommended daily value based on a 2,000 calorie intake.

Anything that is 5% or less is considered low, and anything that is 20% or more is considered high. So if you're trying to increase your calcium intake, you may look for foods that contain greater than 20% of your calcium DV, or if you're trying to limit your sodium intake, try to pick foods that have less than 5% of your sodium DV.

The old labels did not establish a %DV for sugars, but the new label attempts to. There is still not an established "recommendation" for how much sugar one should be consuming each day. BUT, the scientific data has shown that if 10% of your daily calories come from sugar, it is likely difficult for you to successfully get in your other vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. So the percentage next to ADDED sugar is how much of your daily "allotment" is in a serving of whatever food you are looking at.


"Added sugar" has also been incorporated into the new labels, which is one of my personal favorite modifications. Some items like yogurt and dried fruit contain natural sugars like lactose and fructose, previously indistinguishable (gram-wise) from added artificial sugars, honeys, maple syrups, and molasses. And while sugar is technically sugar, I value knowing the difference between naturally occurring and added.


When the nutrition label was created, most Americans were very deficient in Vitamin A and Vitamin C (think scurvy). However, today, that is not the case. Vitamins A & C are being replaced by Vitamin D and potassium, which are both now of greater public health significance. A lack of Vitamin D is correlated with poor bone health, and potassium plays an important role in lowering blood pressure. Calcium and Iron remain on the new labels, as they continue to be minerals that many find difficult to adequately achieve in their diets.


The ingredients should be few and legible in the sense that you should know what they are- aka not random chemical fillers. They’re listed in order from most prevalent to least prevalent; so, for example, if you’re consuming a protein powder in which protein is not the first ingredient, you may want to choose a different one.

For me, this is the most important part of the label. I emphasize the importance of consuming wholesome, nutritious ingredients and would rather have a more calorically dense fruit than a 100-calorie pack of Oreos- why? Take a look at all of the fillers and preservatives in all of the “healthy” low calorie items *cringing*.

Sugar can be described as soooo many names that you may not necessarily relate to sugar. Here are a few (ok, a lot): agave nectar/syrup, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, cane crystals, cane juice, Carob syrup, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporate cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, golden syrup, glucose, glucose-fructose, high-fructose corn syrup (RUN AWAY FROM THIS), honey, maltose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, saccharose, sucrose... and the list goes on. Yes, some of these are naturally occurring, but sugar is ultimately sugar! Choose natural additions but know that your body processes added sugar in a somewhat similar manner according to most research.

Another ingredient to look for especially if you're purchasing processed food is partially hydrogenated oils. Foods can say that they have 0 grams of trans fat but ACTUALLY still have some trans fat in them (up to 1/2 gram)!! Crazy right?! If the product has partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, it contains trans fat. As with everything, moderation is key- a 1/2 gram of trans fat isn't going to kill you- but knowledge is power!

I could go on and on about different ingredients that are disguised as something else, but I'll save that for another post.

I hope you guys found this helpful and have a better understanding of these beasts known as nutrition labels 😊 As always, let me know if you have any questions!

xx Alexis


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