Understanding Nutrition Facts (aka How to Read Nutrition Labels)

Raise your hand if you can’t remember the last time you read an actual nutrition facts label while you were shopping?

It happens to me all the freaking time. I go to the store, grab something I’ve always used, or haven’t used recently and then I get home and read the label.

And I find things on there that we are trying to avoid, or don’t eat (gluten, anyone?). So I figured it was high time that I start paying more attention.

I actually started to read the nutrition facts on everything.

This means that grocery trips are taking longer, but it also means that I’m leaning more toward buying less processed food to save time (seriously).

So answer me this: when was the last time that you looked at the nutrition facts on the food you put in your body? Or fed to your family?

Scary, right?

It’s crazy how we avoid those Nutrition Facts that are printed right on packaged foods.

I mean, the whole point of the thing is to help us make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, we should make better choices…right?

I think you can if you know what you’re looking at.

nutrition facts

Serving Size

The most important part of the Nutrition Facts is the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good.

This means that those Oreo cookies you’re digging into may cost you more calories than you realize. Sure they’re 160 calories, but that’s for 3 cookies. Not the whole sleeve (not even if you break them in half. I see you). 

And if you don’t pay attention to serving size, you’ll likely consume way more fat and carbohydrates than you intend to.

Let me rephrase that: the information in the nutrition facts completely depends on serving size.

And, since every manufacturer quite literally chooses their serving size for each product, it’s often impossible to know what the serving size is going to be.

Let’s use this as an example – plain, unsalted walnuts:

nutrition facts

See? Right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size.

For this particular food, that is 48 grams or (or 1.1 ounces). This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.

Want to do an experiment?

Grab some measuring cups and spoons and possibly a food scale and measure out the servings listed on some of your favorite foods. I recommend you start with nuts, seeds, sugar, honey, flaked coconut, flour, or cereal. Bet you’ll be surprised by some of these-I know I was!

Percent Daily Value

The Percent Daily Value (%Daily Value) on the left-hand side is based on the recommended daily amount of each listed nutrient that the average adult needs.

In a perfect world, you want to reach 100% of the recommended daily value for each nutrient.

Every day.

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

nutrition facts

To complicate things, the percent daily value is a guideline, not a rigid rule.

And not every nutrient has a percent daily value.

That would be too easy!

If you read nutrition facts, you’ll notice that many of these percentages are missing. Usually for things like cholesterol, sugar, and protein.

This is because there isn’t an agreed “official” percent daily value for that nutrient.

Thankfully, the new nutrition facts label will include a percent daily value for sugar.

Small blessings, right?

Calories, Fat, and Other Stuff

These are the things that you’ll find in the middle of the label, they’re usually on a list and for more processed foods, there are a lot of them.

nutrition facts


Calories are pretty straightforward. For example, 1.1 ounces of walnuts has 210 calories.


Did you notice that the percent daily value is bolded when it comes to fat?

That’s on purpose.

In the case of walnuts, they have 20 grams of fat (31% daily value). That number is total fat.

It includes non-bolded items underneath it. So, for these walnuts, 20 grams of total fat includes 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat.

Sadly, unsaturated fats including mono- and poly-unsaturated are not on the label, so you need to do a quick subtraction. In this case, walnuts have 18.5 grams of unsaturated fat.

Cholesterol and Sodium

Cholesterol, sodium, and potassium are all measured in milligrams.

On a good day, you should aim for 100% of your recommended daily value of sodium.

Be careful, though. It’s super easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made, restaurant foods, or snacks.


Carbohydrates, like fat, is bolded because it is total carbohydrates.

This number includes the non-bolded items underneath it like fiber, sugar, and starch (walnuts don’t have starch, so you won’t see it here).

So 1.1 ounces of walnuts contain 4 grams of carbohydrates. You can even break it down further on the label and see that this serving contains 2 grams of fiber and 1 gram of sugar.

And as you can see, 2 grams of fiber is 14% of your recommended daily value.


Protein, like calories, is pretty straightforward, I think.

In the case of our walnuts, a 1.1-ounce serving contains 5 grams of protein.

Vitamins and Minerals

I think that the vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are pretty straightforward.

nutrition facts

This section will list Vitamins A and C as well as potassium, calcium, and iron.

Manufacturers can add other vitamins and minerals to the bottom of their nutrition labels, though it’s optional.

Once you start paying attention, you’ll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others do, and you can adjust your groceries accordingly.

Do you pay attention to nutrition facts when you shop?

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