A Quick & Easy Guide to Deciphering Nutrition Labels

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Due to the conditions of the current stay at home order, and the closure of many common restaurant establishments, the popularity of at home cooking has substantially increased. When it comes to healthy eating, we know that fruits and vegetables are a go to, but today our diets commonly consist of packaged foods that are necessary during times like these. Deciphering which product to choose from is difficult, especially in a world where nutrition claims run rampant, often without any government regulation. Knowing how to use a nutrition facts label can help consumers make these tough decisions and discover what products contribute to a healthy diet. This quick and easy guide can be used to teach families and kids about the nutritional value of their everyday foods. 


Nutrition facts labels have often been overlooked due to the fact that consumers find them to be complex and hard to interpret. They also tend to be a bit abstract in the sense that many find it hard to visualize how a singular food product fits into a person’s overall diet. However, labels are one of the most transparent and truthful looks into what exactly is in your food.


There are four main components of a traditional nutrition facts label: Servings, Calorie or energy content, Nutrients, and Percent daily value. However, the newly designed nutrition label also highlights new portion sizes, types of fat, and added sugars. Let’s start from the top: 


Serving Size:

Serving size and the amount of servings per package are always the first thing listed on the nutrition facts label. Oftentimes many people find it hard to understand what a serving size looks like on their plate. Simple comparisons make it easy to visualize serving sizes. For example, one cup is about the size of a person’s fist, a flat palm is around 3-4 ounces, a cupped palm equals about half a cup, and your thumbnail is equivalent to about 1 teaspoon.


Calorie Content:

 The calorie portion of a nutrition facts label has commonly been the first thing consumers look at when considering a food product. The standard label refers to a 2,000 calorie per day diet, due to the conclusion that an average healthy American expends this amount of calories per day. Nonetheless, it is important to know your body’s specific calorie needs, so be sure to know how many calories and what specific nutrients your body needs when making food choices based on labelling.




The nutrient section makes up the majority of a nutrition facts label. Here you will find values for Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium, Carbohydrates, and Protein. Below these nutrients, you will find values for the following micronutrients: Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium. When reading nutrient content, it is important to specifically look for nutrients that you want less of and the nutrients you want more of.

As a general rule of thumb, look for foods that are low in trans fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars, and high in fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. 


Daily Value (DV):

The percent daily values, found on the right side of the nutrition facts label, tells us how much a nutrient within one serving of the food contributes to the entire daily diet. This value can help you figure out if a product is high or low in specific nutrients. According to the FDA, 5% or less is a low daily value, and 20% or higher is a high daily value. When reading daily values look for high % DV for fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. On the other hand, look for low % DV for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar. 


Here’s an example of a nutrition facts label from a Kum & Go Chef’s Salad. These salads, along with fruit cups, yogurt, and sandwiches are common items from our Food Rescue Transportation Program. Three days a week drivers pick up extra ready to eat foods from over 40 Kum & Go stores  . This food is then distributed to organizations like affordable housing communities, schools, and food pantries in the Des Moines Metro area.

Emma Gellerstedt

Emma Gellerstedt

Intern, Dietetics Student at Iowa State University