Nutrition Label

What Does That Nutrition Label Mean?

July 2, 2018

Many believe that interpreting a nutrition label is like reading ancient hieroglyphics. You have to try to decipher these numbers and percentages as well as vitamins you’ve never heard of. Why are there three different numbers for fats? Is fiber a carbohydrate? What is considered too much sugar per serving?

Tips and Tricks on Nutrition Label Reading

Here are some tips and tricks for reading those hieroglyphics on a nutrition label from Kristi Nadler, MS, RDN, CSOWM, LD; Heidi Keppler, RDN, LD; and Abby Karikas, Dietetic Intern.

Their secret is to break down the label into sections: serving size, calories, protein, fat, sodium and carbohydrates.

Nutrition LabelServing Size

It is important to first get an idea of how much of food is in one serving size. The serving size is normally listed at the very top of the label with two numbers:

  • “Serving Size” is the amount of food that the entire nutrition label is based upon.
  • “Servings per Container” is the number of servings in the ENTIRE package.

Take a look at the example nutrition label. The serving size is two-thirds of a cup and the servings per container is eight. That means that if you ate the entire package you would multiply all the numbers in the label by 8. For a bariatric patient, a serving size may be one-quarter to one-half of the serving size listed on the label. For example, if you consume one-half of the serving size on the label, you would divide all the numbers by 2.


Next, check the calories on the nutrition label. Once again, there are two important numbers:

  • “Calories” is the total number of calories in one serving size.
  • “Calories from Fat” is the number of calories that fat has contributed to the number of total calories.

Here is a tip to ensure that you are choosing low-fat foods. The calories from fat should always be 30 percent or less of the total calories. You can figure this out by multiplying the calories from fat by 3. If the result exceeds the number of total calories on the label, then the food is not low in fat.

Try this with the example nutrition label. This food item has 40 calories from fat. If you multiply 40 calories by 3, you get 120 calories. The total calories in one serving of the food are 280. This food is within the fat limit.


In the middle of the label, you will find protein.  Approximately 1 ounce of protein is equal to 7 grams of protein. It is important to get 60-80 grams of protein in your daily diet. The food item in this nutrition label would not be a good source of protein.

Nutrition LabelFat

Now take a look at the fat portion of the nutrition label. This is can get tricky. There are a lot of numbers to look at and understand which are good and which are bad.

Good fats help to lower our cholesterol levels. They are the unsaturated fats and omega 3 fatty acids. These will appear on a food label as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

The bad fats that cause high cholesterol levels and can block our arteries are called saturated and trans fats.

On the nutrition label, the first number to look at is “Total Fat,” representing the total fat in one serving. This number combines the good and bad fats and should be less than 5 grams per one serving. The nutrition label then breaks that down further into the good and bad fat numbers.


The sodium section of the nutrition label is simple compared to fats and calories. There is only one number to consider now. “Sodium” is listed as the total milligrams (mg) of sodium contained in one serving. The goal is to not exceed 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Therefore, it is important to monitor your daily sodium intake using nutrition labels. Approximately one teaspoon of salt equals 2,300 mg of sodium.


Finally, let’s interpret the carbohydrates on the nutrition label. The “Total Carbohydrates” number represents all the carbohydrates that are in one serving of the food item. This includes “Sugars” and “Dietary Fiber.”

Notice that sugar and fiber are indented underneath the total carbohydrate number. This means that they are already included in the total carbohydrate number and don’t need to be added to it.

You can subtract the dietary fiber from the total since it passes through your body is not absorbed into your digestive system! But you cannot subtract sugars. Sugars count toward your total carbohydrate level. The general rule to follow for sugar is to have 10 grams or less per one serving of the food item. The example food label follows this rule since it only has 1 gram of sugar in one serving.

Key Points to Remember

Now that you know how to decipher nutrition labels, remember these key points before embarking on your label-reading journey:

  • Monitor serving sizes and be able to properly keep track of nutrients if you consume more or less than the serving size.
  • Get 60-80 grams of protein daily.
  • Be sure that your calories from fat never exceed 30 percent of total calories. Remember the formula: Calories from fat x 3 ≤ Total Calories.
  • A food item should be 5 grams or less of fat per serving size.
  • A food item should contain 10 grams of sugar or less per serving.
  • Daily sodium intake should be less than 2,300 mg.

Happy label reading!


Heidi Keppler, RDN, LD earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Indiana University in 1978, and completed her American Dietetic Association requirements at the University of Cincinnati in 1980. Prior to joining Premier Weight Loss Solutions, she served as a dietitian providing nutrition counseling to pre-op and post-op bariatric surgery patients.

Read more articles from Heidi!


Kristi Nadler, MS, RDN, CSOWM, LD earned her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from the University of Cincinnati and her Master of Science in Physical Education, Health and Sports Studies from Miami University. Kristi has over 16 years of experience in weight management, health and wellness. Prior to joining Premier Weight Loss Solutions, she served as a Clinical Dietitian in a comprehensive weight management program providing medical nutrition and lifestyle coaching for surgical and nonsurgical approaches to weight management.


Diana Weathers, RDN, CSOWM, LD is a registered and licensed Dietitian for Premier Weight Loss Solutions in Dayton, Ohio. Diana earned her Bachelor of Science in Medical Dietetics from The Ohio State University in 2008. She is a Board-Certified Specialist as an Interdisciplinary Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management (CSOWM).

Read more articles by Diana!