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How to Read a Food Label: Part 1

By Emma Andrews on December 3, 2015, categorized in Plant-based Nutrition

How to Read a Food Label: Part 1

Empower yourself to thrive by understanding and decoding nutrition labels with a few simple tips and explanations. You don’t have to be a nutritionist (or a detective) to identity good quality food and feel better because of your choices.

Nutrition Fact Panel Consider this your source for quantitative information.

Let’s explore an example together: Vega Essentials Shake


1. Servings:

Look for: Reasonable Serving Size

Serving size and servings per container are both good to look at. Serving size helps with portion control (especially if there is more than one serving per container), but serving size is up to the discretion of the manufacturer. It’s up to you to determine if it’s an appropriate serving size for your needs.

2. % Daily Value:

Know: Based on 2000 calorie diet

Indicates how much a given food contributes towards your recommended daily intake based on the Food and Drug Administration Guidelines. This is based on an average consumption of 2000 calories, suitable for a moderately active female roughly 130-140 lbs.

Keep in mind, that average weight for a female in North America is 164 lbs and 191 lbs for men1, so these % daily values may not reflect your needs, and may be more of a general indication.

3. Fat Content:

Look for: Type and Source of Fat

  • Foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are “green light” fats, especially when coming from whole food ingredients.
  • Saturated fats are considered “yellow light” fats, and should be consumed with care. Healthier sources of saturated fats include coconut or cocoa butter.
  • Be wary of fat-free foods as they typically contain added sweeteners to compensate for the taste satisfaction fats offer. Look for added sweeteners in the ingredients list, or a high sugar content.
  • Avoid all trans fats, as these are highly processed and have negative effects on your cardiovascular health

4. Cholesterol:

Look For: <300mg

Your body makes cholesterol as part of healthy body functioning. You do not need to consume it in foods. Plant-based foods contain no dietary cholesterol.

5. Sodium:

Look For: Low %

  • More than 20% of your daily value (DV) of sodium per serving is considered “high.” Consuming high levels of sodium can lead to feeling bloated, and negatively impact blood pressure.
  • Evaluate total sodium content in context of the serving size. A food may appear to be low sodium, but the serving size far too small for the average appetite.
  • Check for added sodium in the ingredients list—some of it may be naturally occurring.

6. Potassium:

Look For: The higher, the better!

Found naturally in fruits and vegetables, potassium can help balance out high sodium (they work in tandem to support a healthy body).

7. Carbohydrates:

Look For: Higher Fiber, Lower Sugar

  • Fiber is an important nutrient for good digestion, and keeps your energy levels steady. Foods considered to be a good source of fiber contain 10% DV or more (at least 2 grams)
  • Sugar doesn’t have an established daily value. Check ingredient list to find out where sugar is coming from (more on that in Part 2 – stay tuned next month!).
    • Foods considered “lower in sugar” have 5g or less per serving2.
    • If a food has more than 5g sugar but does not contain adequate fiber, fat or protein, it may cause a spike and subsequent crash in blood sugar (and energy).
  • What you won’t see here: whether there are 0 calorie sweeteners, such as stevia or monkfruit extract. Or whether the product has sugar alcohols such as xylitol, erythritol. Some individuals find consuming too many foods with sugar alcohols, or in too high quantity per serving, can irritate their bowel or digestive system.

8. Protein:

Look for: More than 10 grams if looking for a satiating snack. More than 20 grams for a meal.

  • High protein foods contain 20% or more of your recommended daily intake, and may come from plant or animal sources.
  • Plant-based proteins offer a number of health and environmental benefits. Aside from also cross checking your ingredients list to reduce or avoid meat or dairy ingredients, you can also look for products that indicate dairy-free or vegan.

9. Vitamins and Minerals:

Look For: High % of DV

  • Of all the micronutrients, only calcium, iron, vitamin C and Vitamin A are required to be listed.
  • The remaining vitamins and minerals are optional (at the manufacturer’s discretion), but can indicate greater nutrient density.
  • The more total vitamins and minerals, or higher % of your recommended daily intake, the more nutrient dense a food is considered to be.

While the Nutrition Facts Panel may provide valuable information for selecting a food based on some personal needs (such as low sodium, or high fiber), it’s not actually a good reflection of the food’s overall quality. That is better determined by the Ingredients List. Stay tuned next month for my tips on deciphering the Ingredients List.

I’d love to answer any questions you have about reading nutrition labels – comment below, or share what you find most important when choosing your food.


  1. Cynthia L. Ogden et al. (2004). “Mean Body Weight, Height, and Body Mass Index, United States 1960-2002” Advance Data From Vital and Health Statistics (Center for Disease Control). Accessed 8/24/15 from: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ad/ad347.pdf
  2. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. (2015) Specific Nutrient Content Claim Requirements
    Carbohydrate and Sugars Claims
    Accessed 8/24/15 from: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/food-labelling-for-industry/nutrient-content/specific-claim-requirements/eng/1389907770176/1389907817577?chap=11

Emma Andrews

Emma Andrews is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, certified in Plant-based Cooking. An endurance runner and cross-training addict, Emma believes the kitchen is your playground. She loves exploring new and innovative ingredients, recipes and food trends almost as much as she loves beating a personal best in trail and road races all around North America. Her motto? “Live a life that’s anything but average!” Learn more about her work as a public speaker and wellness educator at emmamazing.com or join her on social @emmamazing_life
Emma Andrews