Nutrition Labels Decoded: A Quick and Healthy Grocery Guide


Thanks to small print and a slew of weird words, nutrition labels now feel so complex that many harried shoppers have altogether stopped reading them. Once consumers know what to look for, however, they will realize that nutrition labels are a great source on health living – a resouce that can be quickly read by even the busiest shoppers.

Nutrition Facts Labels

For most consumers, there are only four to six things they really need to know about the food they eat. The “Nutrition Facts” label, usually on the side of the box, provides all of this information if they know what to look for.

Serving Size is found at the top of the label, just under “Nutrition Facts.” Understanding serving size is key to good health because, if the serving size is larger than that labeled, the consumer could unwittingly take on more calories, fat and sodium than they thought. If you have trouble envisioning portion size, remember these estimates:

1 TBL  (½ oz.)  = 1 thumb
2 TBL  (1 oz.) = 1 ping pong ball
¼ cup (2 oz.) = 1 golf ball
½ cup (4 oz.) = 1 tennis ball
1 cup  (8 oz.) = 1 baseball or a closed fist

Another method of determining the serving size is to divide the entire contents of the package by the “Servings Per Container.”

Calories per Serving will be found just below the serving information and will show both total calories, as well as calories from fat. The amount of calories a person should have per day depends on their age and gender.


Age Gender Calories/day
2-3 Both 1000
4-8 Both 1200-1400
9-13 Male 1800
9-13 Female 1600
14-18 Male 2200
14-18 Female 1800
19-30 Male 2400
19-30 Female 2000
31-50 Male 2200
31-50 Female 1800
51+ Male 2000
51+ Female 1600


Fat is located next to and just below calories and has four important components: calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat and trans fat. Although vilified for years, good fats are a key component of a healthy diet, and should comprise about 30% of total calories; this means that 540 calories of a 35 year old woman’s diet should be from good fats.

So which are the good fats? Not saturated fats and not trans fats, both of which are listed on the nutrition label. To the extent possible, limit these fats, which include butter, coconut oil, palm oil, hydrogenated oils and partially hydrogenated oils. Animal fats, such as that naturally occurring in beef, chicken and pork, are also saturated and should be limited.

Healthy eaters choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like olive oil and canola oil. Naturally occurring healthy fats are found in plenty of beloved foods, including nuts, avocados and some fish, like salmon.

Sodium (salt) content is listed just below fat. Although required in small amounts, too much sodium, the key ingredient in most packaged foods, can lead to congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and kidney and liver disease. Consumers with no medical condition are cautioned to limit total sodium intake to 2.4 grams (about 1 teaspoon) per day, and those with a diagnosed condition are warned to limit their intake to just 1.5 grams (about ½ teaspoon) per day.

Vitamins are listed just below the other nutrients. Only those vitamins that appear in the food are listed, although there are a number of essential vitamins and minerals that consumers should get in the right amounts each day.

Percentage of Daily Value is displayed throughout the Nutrition Facts for each element except calories. Consumers should know that this percentage is based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which is not recommended for everyone. However, in a pinch, these percentages provide a convenient way to quickly estimate if the food eaten comprises a healthy diet.

Nutritious Choices

Providing a healthy complete meal for the entire family can be a chore. New nutrition guidelines from the USDA have simplified this process by substituting the MyPlate plan for the old Food Pyramid. In addition, savvy parents use the information provided in the nutrition facts to avoid a fat and salt nightmare and provide the family with a healthy meal. Consider this comparison of a two different chicken pot pie servings:


Nutrient Healthy Pot Pie Fatty Pot Pie
Calories 320 1060
Sodium 990 mg 1440 mg
Fat 12 g 64 g


Given that these products cost about the same, the health-conscious consumer would definitely prefer the lower calorie, fat and sodium option.

Eating healthy and teaching kids to do so has never been easier. Tools and guidelines provided by the government, such as Nutrition Facts and MyPlate, have all of the information necessary for the concerned consumer to serve the entire family with a nutritious diet.

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