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Ask A Dietitian: Reading a Nutritional Label

by Tricia Dye, UCO Dietetic Intern

Q: Is all of the information on a nutrition facts panel really necessary? Can you help me make sense of it?

A: Reading a nutrition facts panel on food is a task that may seem overwhelming. What do these numbers mean? How much is too much? Should I pay attention to the percentages? These are all questions that may come to mind when you take a glance at a food label. Knowing where to start and what to look for will help you with effectively reading a nutrition facts panel.

First thing first, where should you start? That can easily be answered by starting at the top. Every nutrition facts panel is based upon a certain serving size. The serving size is listed at the top. Keeping in mind the serving size while reading the rest of the label, will help with understanding the amount of food to consume. A piece of information to remember when noticing the serving size is to reflect on whether this amount of food or beverage is the amount that you would personally consume. If one cup is the serving size and you eat two cups, the calories, fat, and other nutrients listed on the label will need to be multiplied by two.

Now that you know the serving size, you can relate that amount of food to the total calories and nutrients within the serving size. The next step is to look at the amount of total calories. Once you check the total amount of calories, the next number to check is how many of those calories come from fat. If the calorie content is high for a small amount of food, this may be a reason to find another product especially if you are watching your weight.

The numbers that are more than likely overlooked are the percentages, but understanding what they mean will really help you evaluate how this food fits into you daily meal plan. The percent daily values are based on a person who would consume 2,000 calories per day. A food item with a 10 percent daily value of carbohydrate will provide 10 percent of the total amount of carbohydrate that a person eating a 2,000-calorie diet should eat for that day. Since these values are based on 2,000 calories a day, you may need more or less based on the recommended amount of calorie intake for you personally.

Some tips to remember when reading the percent daily values are that 5 percent or less is a low amount. Aiming to consume a product with a 5 percent or lower value is good when pertaining to total fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Twenty percent or more is high, and this number should be high when pertaining to vitamins, minerals, and fiber. You may wonder why protein does not have a percentage. This is because most Americans eat enough or more protein than they need, and therefore, the percent is not required. Trans fat and sugar also do not have a percentage because the FDA has established no recommendations or daily value.

Lastly, if you are reading the ingredients list, remember that ingredients are listed in order of weight. The first listed ingredient is the ingredient that has the most amount of weight within the product. The next time you read a nutrition fact panel, remember these guidelines in order to have a better idea of what the numbers mean. Knowing the facts will help you in your food choices. Information within this article was obtained from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ website,

For nutritional counseling, Norman Regional Health System offers the guidance of registered dietitians. Those interested can schedule an appointment for an assessment with a referral from their family physician.

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