Nutrition Facts Labels: How to Read Them

If you’ve only given nutrition facts labels a quick glance in the past, you could benefit from more information on how to accurately read them. Nutrition facts labels are required by law in many countries for all packaged foods. Whether it be clearly printed on a bottle or tucked behind the seam of a wrapper, these labels provide critical data on your daily intake of calories, vitamins and minerals to help you make more informed decisions about your diet. 

Ultimately, these nutrition labels can be the difference between sub-optimal and peak performance. 

Nutrition Facts Labels: A Brief History

In 1990, the FDA passed the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). The provisions of this act required most food products to include a nutrition facts label that contained recommendations for nutritional intake to either be met or limited in a 2,000 calorie daily diet. By 1994, this label was found on nearly every single packaged food in the United States.

Today, nutrition facts labels on food packages exceed 6.5 billion prints. The label has even received an award for design excellence, given in 1997 by president Bill Clinton to Burkey Belser, the graphic designer behind it!

Under the NLEA there are also specific nutrition facts label requirements for beverages such as sports drinks or alcohol, but we’ll be focusing more on food products in this guide. We’ll also be referencing the updated 2016 revision of the label, which you can easily identify from its larger, bolder calorie count typeface.

Breaking Down the Nutrition Facts Label

Each nutrition facts label contains a few sections that are already broken up by bolded section dividers. Naturally, you’ll be reading these food labels from top to bottom, and we’ll be breaking it down for you the same way.

nutrition facts

On the left is the old nutrition facts label. On the right is the new nutrition facts label you'll start seeing more and more of.

Serving Sizes & Calories

The first two sections underneath the nutrition facts header are the serving size information and calorie count. Serving size goes hand in hand with your daily calories, and making sure you can exercise good portion control is crucial to maintaining your weight and health. Usually, you’ll be able to find both the serving size as well as the number of servings in your package. 

Each food label should also include the units of whatever food you’re eating. Some common units on labels you’ll see around are:

  • Cups (in grams)
  • Pieces
  • Slices
  • Teaspoons

The printed serving size is important if you’re watching your calorie intake. The old version of the nutrition facts label had total calories printed in a much smaller font size, consistent with the rest of the printed text sizes. The updated 2016 labels have a much stronger emphasis on calorie count, with the largest text on the entire label being the calorie count.

If you’re shocked the calorie count is surprisingly low for an entire pack of your favorite snack, you may only be looking at the calorie count per one serving. This is why we recommend comparing how much you actually eat (your portion size) to the printed serving size on the label. 

Some nutrition facts labels may have a “per serving” and “per container” breakdown of the ingredients and nutrients, which is even more helpful in tracking your total daily caloric intake. 

Nutrients List

Underneath the serving size and calories sections of a nutrition facts label, you’ll find a list of the nutrients and ingredients. Though some items on this list can boost your health or performance, the FDA recommends limiting your intake of certain nutrients while recommending you meet or exceed the daily recommended value of others.

Nutrients to Limit Your Intake Of

Below are 4 typical nutrients on labels that the FDA suggests you should limit your intake of. 

Fat

Usually, you’ll find two types of fat listed on your packaged food. First on the label is saturated fat. Saturated fat is usually found in higher proportions of animal products, and generally sit solid at room temperature. Even though saturated fats are naturally occurring, having too much saturated fat in your diet can cause heart disease and a variety of other health issues. Foods like red meat, coffee creamer, butter, frozen pizza, and cheese contain large amounts of saturated fats. 

The next form of fat is trans fats. Trans fats are essentially “unsaturated” fats, found primarily in hydrogenated oils. Think of these fats as artificial fats, created in a lab by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils in order to make them more solid at room temperature. The FDA recommends eating as few trans fats as possible, and some food manufacturers have already committed to eliminating trans fats from their foods. We strongly recommend staying away from trans fats. The longevity of your body and your athletic performance will thank you.

Fats in general are a very important element of an athlete’s diet, and is often undervalued as an important contributor to health and performance in sports. Dietary fats are where we get EFAs (essential fatty acids) that cannot be produced in the body. In other words, you absolutely must eat these to not only function properly but to perform at your optimal level!

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is another form of fat that is found in all types of body cells. Making sure you’re getting the right amount of cholesterol in your diet can help your body create important hormones, absorb vitamin D properly, and can help you digest food more easily. You’ll mostly be getting cholesterol from animal products, such as eggs, meat, and cheese.

Put simply, there is “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol. The “good” cholesterol is classified as high-density lipoproteins, or HDLs. HDLs help your body carry excess cholesterol from food to your liver, where it is then processed and excreted. Low-density lipoproteins, or LDLs, carry cholesterol to the tissues in your body. If LDL levels in your body get too high, your risk of developing heart disease increases dramatically. Both types of cholesterol can only be found in your blood, and are not contained in your food.

Having “good” cholesterol is very important for an athlete, as it’s required to make important hormones like testosterone, which contributes to muscle growth and performance.

Sodium

Sodium is an essential electrolyte in your body. According to the FDA, roughly 75% of sodium in your diet comes from eating packaged or restaurant foods, compared to the 11% portion that comes from added salt in home cooking.

Sodium is important to your body because it helps regulate fluid balance, muscle contraction, and your nervous system. However, excess sodium in your diet increases your blood pressure, since it stores the excess fluids in your body. Too much sodium also dramatically increases your risk of developing stomach cancer, kidney disease, and osteoporosis.

As an athlete, having enough salt in your diet is important. This essential mineral helps you make up what you lose through sweating. Carefully consider the amount of sodium you currently have in your diet, and adjust accordingly based on how much exercising or training you’re doing.

Beware: Not all salt is created equal. Sea Salt is nutrient rich and should be enjoyed liberally. However, the table salt you’ll find at your local diner is so heavily refined that all the good stuff is eliminated before it ever reaches your mouth.

Carbohydrates

Carbs are important for sustained athletic performance, but eating too many carbs can also increase fat storage. Before exercise, carb loading is common because during your activity your body uses stored carbs for fuel. What you don’t end up using is converted into glycogen and stored for later. 

During exercise, simple carbs are important. Glucose and dextrose are the most accessible, since they are used around 10-15 minutes after you consume them. This is why liquid drinks with carbs can be great companions for a mid or post-workout recovery. 

In general, the more complex the carb is, the longer it takes your body to break down. For this nutrient, it is all about smart, conscious portion control and making sure your timing is right.

Carbs help athletes perform better, since they help delay fatigue. During exercise, the glycogen in muscles is used up, increasing the body’s need for another fuel: carbohydrates. Eating the appropriate amount of carbs before, during, and after exercising can help you perform at higher levels for longer training periods.

Carbohydrate intake and the timing of when you eat around a workout is very athlete specific. Personally, I prefer working out on an empty stomach and eating a big meal after with complex carbohydrates to recover for my next workout. Others find their athletic performance benefits substantially from eating 45 minutes before a workout.

As with everything, make sure you are continually testing and tracking your results until you find out what is optimal for your health and peak performance!

Nutrients to Get More Of

The list of nutrients the FDA recommends a healthy intake of is not as exhaustive as the list you want to avoid. That being said, it is still important to understand the effects that careful, calculated amounts of vitamins and minerals can have on your body and health. 

Vitamins & Minerals

According to the FDA, most Americans fail to eat enough fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their daily diets. This section of the nutrition label contains key information about vitamins and minerals if you are looking to increase your intake.

Many of these vitamins and minerals contribute directly to reducing your risk for diseases such as osteoporosis, and can also promote healthy bodily functions since fiber helps promote healthy bowel movements. If your diet is diverse and healthy with fruits, veggies, and whole grains, the soluble dietary fibers in these foods help reduce your risk of heart disease. 

As an athlete, you can use nutrition facts labels to not only target nutrients you’d like to cut back on, but also increase the vitamins and minerals you want to eat more of. High activity levels generally require more vitamin needs. 

Keep this in mind: while vitamin and mineral supplements may not enhance your performance, being deficient in one or more has a good chance of lowering your performance. 

Percent Daily Value (DV)

Percent daily value is a government regulated requirement on all nutrition facts labels. These percentages comprise the entire right column of the label, and give critical information on the nutrients in one serving of food. Reading these percentages is quite simple: if the label has 15% printed to the right of calcium, what you’re eating will contain 15% of the calcium you need each day per serving. 

For healthy adults, these percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, a number you’re most likely already used to reading. However, even if your caloric intake is higher or lower than this mandated amount, you can still use the percentages as a guide to tell you if a food is high or low in a nutrient you’re trying to target. 

As a rule of thumb, if the printed percentage value is less than 5%, it is considered a low portion of that nutrient. If the value is 20% or more for a nutrient, keep an eye out for how much you’re planning on eating, since this is considered a high portion.

A good habit to build with percent daily values is budgeting your nutrients, as well as choosing foods with high levels of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, while being low in saturated fats, sugar, and sodium. 

Nutrition Labels: As A Whole

Nutrition facts labels are a no-frills breakdown of everything you gain from eating packaged foods. These numbers, percentages, and serving sizes are crucial for those looking to target specific nutrients in order to perform better, or build a healthier, more nutritious diet. 

An important takeaway with nutrition facts labels is to always pay attention to serving sizes, since they can really skew your impression of how well a food fits into your diet and nutrition needs!

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