Understanding Nutrition Labels

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For some people, grocery shopping is an enjoyable experience where they can spend hours browsing through aisles and finding the perfect ingredient for their latest culinary creation. However, for others, deciding between two almost identical products is not fun, especially when they have a long list of other things to do. 

You know what would make grocery shopping easier? A cheat sheet for what products we should look for, and lucky for us, this cheat sheet exists: nutrition labels. Though, many of us find reading nutrition labels like reading a different language: interesting, but it doesn’t make sense. 

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed when you read nutrition labels, this is the post for you.

Food Label Basics


Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that our body can’t break down. You may wonder how beneficial it can be if our body can’t digest it, but you would be surprised!

Fiber is a nutrition powerhouse that offers many health benefits. It can help with weight loss, improve digestive health, lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease, and prevent constipation. Men are recommended to eat 38 grams of fiber per day, and women are recommended to eat 25 grams of fiber daily, but most Americans only eat about 15 grams of fiber per day. 

The best sources of fiber include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Foods with 2-4 grams of fiber per serving are considered good sources of fiber, but foods with over 5 grams per serving are considered great sources of fiber, or high-fiber foods. Look for foods with over 20% of the Daily Value for fiber.

Slowly increase fiber intake by about 5 grams per week to avoid excessive bloating or flatulence, which can happen if fiber is added too quickly.

What would 5 grams of fiber look like?

  • ¼ cup of almonds
  • ½ an avocado
  • ½ a cup of black beans

Multigrain, Whole grain, or Whole Wheat?

Whole grains are a great source of fiber, but finding the right products can be confusing. What’s the difference between multigrain, whole grain, whole wheat, and white bread, anyways? 

Difference between whole grain and white bread. Whole grain bread is made from ‘whole’ grains, or unprocessed grains high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. White bread is processed to remove the darker parts of the grain, which are the fiber, vitamin, and mineral-rich parts. What is left behind is low in these nutrients, which makes whole-grain bread a healthier option than white bread.

Difference between whole grain and multigrain bread. If you compare the nutrition labels for whole-grain and multigrain bread, you may notice that most ‘multigrain’ breads will have less fiber than ‘whole grain’ breads. This is because multigrain bread contains multiple types of grains, but these grains may not be whole grains. This makes whole-grain bread a better source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals than multigrain bread. 

Difference between whole grain and whole wheat bread. ‘Whole wheat’ bread is a type of ‘whole grain’ bread made only of wheat. It will have the same benefits as other varieties of whole-grain bread.

Once you reach the grocery store, look for bread and grains (rice, pasta, cereals, tortillas, etc) that are labeled ‘whole grain’ or ‘whole wheat’, rather than ‘multigrain’ or ‘white’.


Sodium is a mineral found in salt, and the recommendation is to keep the amount of sodium you eat every day under 2,300 milligrams, which is equal to a teaspoon of salt. However, the average American eats over 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day.

Low-sodium foods have less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving and average less than 5% of the Daily Value. Remember to calculate the number of servings you eat to find the actual amount of sodium you consume. For example, if you were to eat two servings of the food below, your sodium intake would be 360 milligrams.

It’s important to understand that “no-salt added” and “low-sodium” don’t mean the same thing. Even if a food item is labeled “no-salt added,” it may still contain salt. For a guide on how to manage your sodium intake,  visit our blog post Salt 101.

Saturated Fat

‘Total Fat’ on the nutrition label includes the combined amount of saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and transfat per serving in the product.

Saturated fat is usually found in animal products such as meat or dairy. It is solid at room temperature, like bacon fat or butter. This type of fat has been linked to increased cholesterol and risk of heart disease, so the recommendation is to limit the amount of saturated fat to around 14 grams per day. You can substitute lower-fat products – such as 1% milk rather than whole milk – to reduce your intake. You can also choose leaner cuts of meat, such as fish or chicken rather than pork or beef. When shopping for packaged foods, look for products that are less than 5% of the daily value of saturated fat.

Unsaturated fat is considered a ‘healthy’ fat, unlike transfat and saturated fat. It is usually liquid at room-temperature, like olive oil or canola oil. Finding foods that are lower in saturated fat and higher in unsaturated fat can reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease. Although unsaturated fat is not listed separately on the nutrition label, it is included in the Total Fat. 

The Difference Between 1%, 2%, and Whole Milk

Milk labels can be confusing, so let’s look at the difference in fat content for each type of milk.


Also Known As…


Amount of Saturated Fat (per cup)

Whole Milk

Full-Fat Milk

No alterations or decreases in the natural amount of fat

5 grams

2% Milk

Reduced-Fat Milk

2% of the total weight of the milk comes from fat

3.5 grams

1% Milk

Low-Fat Milk

1% of the total weight of the milk comes from fat

1.5 grams

Skim Milk

Non-Fat Milk or Fat-Free Milk

Less than 0.5% of the weight comes from fat

0-0.5 grams

*From Hiland Milk Products

Since full-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese have more saturated fat, we suggest substituting them with lower-fat alternatives to improve cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease.

Added Sugars

The ‘Total Sugars’ on the nutrition label refers to the amount of sugar that is naturally present in the food and the amount of sugar added to the food during processing. We suggest limiting ‘Added Sugars’ rather than ‘Total Sugars’. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to less than 25 grams a day for women and 36 grams a day for men. This can be achieved by looking for packaged products with less than 5% of the Daily Value of added sugars.

Sources of added sugars include cane sugar, agave syrup, honey, molasses, maple syrup, and brown sugar. Added sugars can be hidden in foods like condiments or dressings – just two tablespoons of ketchup is 8 grams of added sugar!

Try our easy and nutritious low-added sugar desserts, such as our Mango Lime Popsicles or Walnut Oat Apple Crisp.


Calcium is important for bone health. About 30% of men and 60% of women don’t get the recommended 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, which can increase the risk of osteoporosis later. Foods over 20% of the Daily Value are considered high-calcium, including dairy, chia seeds, and fortified whole grain cereals. 

ProductServing SizeAmount of Calcium (in milligrams)
Plain Non-Fat Greek Yogurt¾ Cup300 mg
2% Milk1 Cup300 mg
Chia Seeds1 Tbsp150 mg
Fortified Whole Grain Cereal1 ⅓ Cup200 mg

*Taken as an estimate from generic brands

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, and over 90% of people don’t get enough of it, which can lead to poor bone health. 

The recommendation for vitamin D is 600 IU per day, or about 15mcg. Thankfully, foods  high in calcium are often high in vitamin D, such as dairy. Fatty fish (such as salmon) or fortified whole-grain cereals can provide vitamin D also. 

Good sources of vitamin D have 10% of the Daily Value, and great sources have 20% of the Daily Value. 


Checking the Daily Value of the nutrition facts label is a great place to start when learning to compare food products, but in general, here are some principles to stick with:

NutrientIncrease or Decrease?How?
FiberIncrease Choosing whole grains bread products
SodiumDecrease Find foods with less than 5% of the Daily Value (DV)
Saturated FatDecrease Choosing low-fat dairy and lean meat
Added SugarsDecrease Replacing added sugars with fruit
CalciumIncrease Dairy and fortified foods
Vitamin DIncrease Dairy, seafood, and fortified foods

Do you have any other questions about reading food labels? Comment down below!

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