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Do You Know How to Read a Nutrition Label?

You want to get and stay healthy, but nutrition labels on food packages can be hard to understand. We can help!

April 22, 2016 | HF Healthy Living Team

This is a guest post from Lisa Suriano, founder of Veggiecation®, a premier school food service consulting company for independent schools.

Understanding how to read a nutrition label is essential for your health, and knowing what to look for is fairly simple once you get used to it. Here’s a quick guide to help you and your family stay healthy and be smart consumers.

Serving Size

Serving Size on Nutrition Labels
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The first thing you may notice on a nutrition label is the serving size. A serving size is the amount of food that equals the information on the nutrition label. The serving size will always be followed by “Servings per,” which indicates how many servings there are in one package, bottle, bag, etc. of the product.

For example, a bottle of juice may be 80 calories per serving, but there might be 2.5 servings per container. This means that drinking the whole container of juice will equal 200 calories!

Veggiecation Tip: If you have older children, use serving size as a math lesson! Have your kids multiply serving sizes by the list of nutrients to see how many calories, grams of fat, milligrams of sodium, etc. are in various foods.


Calories are how much energy is in a food. Calories can come from any of the nutrients on the list. For example, if you are eating bread, most of your calories are going to come from carbohydrates.

Calories aren’t bad! You need them to produce energy. However, most people eat more calories than they burn. That is when weight gain can occur. Staying active and burning those excess calories is important to getting to, and staying at, a healthy weight.

Veggiecation Tip: It’s important to teach kids to take note of, but not obsess over, calories. Talk to your child’s doctor to find out what works best for your child.


Total Fat on Nutrition Labels
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Let’s face it: fat gets a bad reputation. Low-fat or fat-free foods were extremely popular a couple of years ago because it was assumed that fatty foods made you gain weight. But new information reminds us that fat is not the only contributing factor to weight gain.

In fact, fat is one of three necessary macronutrients that your body needs to survive. However, you should stay away from food that is high in harmful fats, like saturated and trans fats. Instead, look for foods that contain polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, or omega-3 fatty acids.

Veggiecation Tip: Don’t create a fear of fat in your kids. Introduce them to heart-healthy fats such as avocado, pumpkin seeds, and olive oil!


Cholesterol is found only in foods made with animal products. The American Heart Association recommends that those who have high cholesterol or eat a lot of meat, poultry, and dairy need to limit their intake to 300 milligrams per day.

Veggiecation Tip: Get your family used to plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils, and tofu. Consider making Mondays “meatless” to benefit both your body and the environment!


Sodium balances your pH (body acidity), keeps you hydrated, and helps with muscle contractions. Foods don’t have to taste salty to contain sodium; in fact, cereals and sweets usually contain at least some sodium. Some frozen meals or prepared foods even contain half of your daily intake of sodium or more!

So be careful with how much sodium you consume. Most adults should limit daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, which is about one teaspoon.

Veggiecation Tip: To control how much sodium you get in your diet, you should avoid processed food and cook simple meals at home together. Check out some featured Veggiecation recipes or our recipes for quick, simple ideas to cook healthy meals.


Carbohydrate on Nutrition Labels
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Most of your energy from calories will come from carbohydrates (the nutrient in foods like bread, pasta, and cereal). However, there are different types of carbohydrates, and you will want to increase the consumption of some and limit the others.

For example, fiber is a complex carbohydrate and is very good for you. The average adult should eat 21–35 grams of fiber per day. Sugar, on the other hand, is a simple carbohydrate and should be eaten in small amounts. Some sugars occur naturally in fruit, but lots of sugar is added to the food we eat, like juices and sweets. You’ll want to limit these added sugars, as they will leave you feeling drained.

Veggiecation Tips:

  • Experiment with a variety of whole grains, such as whole-wheat couscous, farro, barley, and bulgur wheat, to increase your B-vitamin intake for lots of energy!
  • Conduct a fun demonstration with your children. Show them that 4.3 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon. Measure out the total grams of sugar in a juice, soda, or package of cookies to show them how much sugar is in some of the processed foods they might eat!


Protein on Nutrition Labels
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Protein is a nutrient your body needs to help build muscle and repair organs. The average adult needs 45-44 grams of protein per day.

Many people think of protein as only coming from meat, but there are plenty of protein-rich options for non-meat eaters! Protein is found in beans and legumes, and even in vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and potatoes.

Veggiecation Tip: Talk to your kids about how protein helps build strong muscles and can help them be better athletes!

Other Nutrients

Nutrition labels can also help us to see what vitamins and minerals we’re getting from our food. Here are the vitamins and minerals you should focus on, and what they can do for your health:

  • Calcium: strong bones
  • Potassium: healthy blood, healthy heart
  • Magnesium: healthy heart, healthy bones
  • Iron: growing strong, high energy
  • Vitamin A: healthy cells, prevents acne
  • Vitamin C: fights colds, helps skin and hair

For these vitamins and minerals, 5% or less is considered a low source; 20% or more is considered a high source.

Lisa Suriano
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About Lisa Suriano
Lisa Suriano is a certified nutritionist who holds a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Food Science and specializes in school food service as the Director of Operations for J.C. Food, a premier school food service consulting company for independent schools. Lisa founded the evidence-based, culinary-nutrition education program Veggiecation®, which introduces thousands of children and families to the delicious world of vegetables. She is thrilled to partner with Healthfirst to help introduce practical and palate-pleasing ideas for incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into the lives of the community! 


© 2016 HF Management Services, LLC.

Healthfirst is the brand name used for products and services provided by one or more of the Healthfirst group of affiliated companies. The information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice from your doctor.

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