The nutrition facts panel: what you really need to know


Want to count calories? Figure out how much protein you're getting? Each packaged food sold in the U.S. has a nutrition facts panel printed on its label, and that holds the key to understanding what you're really eating. Here's what each nutrition facts label can tell you.

Serving Size
The first bit of information under the large, bold "Nutrition Facts" heading explains what the manufacturer considers to be a serving size and how many servings are actually included in the package. This can be eye-opening if you thought that a package contained a single serving. For example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda is easy to swig down at one sitting, but a serving is considered 8 ounces -- so you're actually getting 2.5 servings from one bottle.

The calories information listed is per serving, not per package. That means that if a package contains 4 servings, you must multiple the number you see by 4 to determine the number of calories you'll ingest if you eat it all. Calories from fat is also listed, but it is easier to understand your fat intake from the next section of the label.

Fat, Carbohydrates and Protein
The three building blocks that your body needs are fat, carbohydrates and protein, but too much of one can be unhealthy. The label will list these, along with cholesterol and sodium, in grams and as a percentage of your recommended daily intake. In general, 5 percent or less of your daily value is considered low, while 20 percent or more is high. Here's everything under this section:

  • Total fat is given in grams and is further broken down into Saturated Fat and Trans Fat, two types of fat which are considered to contribute to heart disease and higher blood cholesterol levels, according to the American Heart Association. You likely want to limit these two types of fats in your diet, which is why reading the nutrition facts can be helpful. Some labels will also include percentages of polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat, which are considered to be healthier fats.
  • Some cholesterol in your diet is necessary, but too much of the wrong type can cause complications. This helps you balance the amount you consume.
  • Sodium can be important to restrict for some people who have health conditions that include high blood pressure.
  • Total carbohydrates also show you how much dietary fiber and sugars are included in the count. High- fiber carbs help your digestive system and are linked to reducing your risk of some types of cancers, while an overload of sugars can stress your body.
  • Protein can help you build muscle tissue. Some people have trouble digesting larger amounts of protein, but many people seek additional protein in their diets.

The nutrition facts label also lists how much of your daily values of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron are included in a food. Some nutrition facts labels will include other vitamins and minerals, but they are not required to do so.

The bottom of the nutrition facts label goes into a little more detail about what the percentage of daily values means for you and what's recommended for a 2,000-calorie diet and a 2,500-calorie diet. (The former is about what a moderately active woman should consume in a day, and the latter is close to what a moderately active man or very active woman should consume.) This can help you plan your food intake for an entire day.

If you are looking for the nutrition information on a food and you don't have the label in front of you, or it's an item like fresh meat, fruits or vegetables that isn't packaged with a nutrition facts label, you can easily look up the information for each item at UCLAHealth.orgContact us for help or more information.

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