How to Read Nutrition Labels

Chad Birt

Written by Chad Birt on Fri Jul 28 2023.

Grocery Store.

All packaged and canned foods come with nutrition facts labels. But if you aren’t a dietitian, trying to interpret what they mean can feel like trying to read hieroglyphics.

Most of us give nutrition labels little thought. But if you need to avoid certain ingredients, like salt or fat, it’s important to read them. Since many caregivers do grocery shopping and meal prep, we wanted to get some insight on this topic.

To do that, we reached out to Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Lindsey Kaszuba. Kaszuba offers a Pantry Edit service that teaches people how to read and understand nutrition labels.

Why Should Someone Learn to Read Nutrition Labels?

Nutrition labels are like maps for improved health. They provide key information that you can use to nourish your body. 

“Learning how to read nutrition labels and ingredient lists gives you the tools and knowledge to confidently choose what goes in your grocery cart,” Kaszuba says. “Once you learn how to interpret them, it’s easier to buy healthy foods that you and your family will actually eat. 

What You’ll Need

You don’t need special equipment to read nutrition labels. Once you know what each section means, you’ll be able to make smart food decisions.

If you wear eyeglasses or contact lenses, bring or wear them to the grocery store. That way you can easily read the fine print and make comparisons. 

Steps to Reading Food Nutrition Labels

Step 1: Determine the Serving Size

All food labels have a serving size on the top, left-hand side. 

Kaszuba says that the serving size is based on the amount of food you should eat in one sitting. However, it isn’t a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink, in general. 

“To find what amount feels best to you, pay attention to how that specific food sits with you when you eat the recommended serving size and also when you eat more (or less).”

Carewell Tip

Pay attention to how many servings are in the package. This makes it easier to manage portions without going overboard.  

Step two: Determine the Number of Calories

“A calorie is a measure of energy,” Kaszuba said. “The calories per serving is the total number of calories you get from all sources and nutrients in a single serving of food.”

In America, we tend to focus heavily on total calories, but this number isn’t as important as you might think. Kaszuba recommends focusing on the quality of the food you consume instead.

Remember: If you have more than one serving of a particular food, you need to multiply the calories per serving by the number of servings you eat. 

Step three: Assess the Nutrients

The nutrients section of a food label details the nutrients or supplements in the food. Kaszuba says this includes total fats, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, protein, total sugars, added sugars, and certain vitamins and minerals. 

If you have a health condition, like high blood pressure or diabetes, try to avoid foods with added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats. 

“The things that I most look out for on food labels are: higher protein and fiber, minimal sugars, and little to no added sugars,” said Kaszuba. “These indicate the food is providing adequate nutrition without much else.”

Step 4: Look at the ‘Percent Daily Value’ (%DV) Section

This section of a food label explains how much of a specific nutrient contributes to the total daily value of a 2,000-calorie diet (what the average person needs to maintain a healthy weight). 

Remember that this is only a recommendation. “You may need more or less of each nutrient depending on your unique body, health, and lifestyle,” said Kaszuba. Pro Tip: Most food labels feature a DV and %DV section. Kaszuba says that DVs are recommended amounts of a specific nutrient. While %DV is how much a nutrient in one serving of food contributes to the daily diet of an average person. DV and %DV are easy ways to compare foods and nutrient contents. For example, if you need to eat less salt, you can look at the %DV on a low-sodium product and compare it to what you’d usually buy.

Step 5: Pay Attention to the ‘Upper Limit’ and ‘Lower Limit’ (“less than” or “at least”)

Certain nutrients are more beneficial than others. The upper and lower limits on food labels can help you determine the appropriate serving size. 

Upper Limit (Eat Less Than)

“The upper limit is simply a recommendation that you stay below, or ‘eat less than,’ the amount of nutrients listed on the label,” Kaszuba said.

Lower Limit (Eat At Least)

“The lower limit is the opposite. It recommends that you have ‘at least’ that amount of a specific nutrient per day.

For example, the DV of salt (sodium) is 2,300 milligrams per day. This is 100% of the daily value. Therefore, you should eat less than 2,300 milligrams of salt or 100% DV each day.

Step 6: Start Comparing Labels to Make Healthier Choices

Once you know how to interpret each section of a food nutrition label, you can shop more confidently.

 “This knowledge helps you know what to look for, what to avoid, and how to swap with healthier alternatives,” Kaszuba said. “You can also start recognizing how foods affect your body once you’ve consumed them.”

“The most significant marker for knowing what’s best is determining what actually feels good and what doesn’t. You can use that information to buy and eat more of the foods that make you feel great and less of what doesn’t. It’s a total game-changer!”

How to Read Nutrition Labels - Commonly Asked Questions

1) How do I read a dual-column nutrition label?

Dual-column nutrition labels are similar to single-column nutrition labels. The difference is the information provided.

“The first column generally tells you the number of calories and nutrients per serving, while the second column is the number of calories and nutrients for the entire package,” Kaszuba said.

For example, most pints of ice cream have a dual-column label with a serving size of -½ cup vs the entire pint.

2) How closely should I follow nutrition labels?

Nutrition labels provide helpful information, but they aren’t strict guidelines. Kaszuba says that everyone’s dietary needs are unique. 

“Rather than focusing on these broad recommendations, start to learn about the foods that feel best for your body and eat more of those.” 

3) How can I make better food decisions outside of reading nutrition labels?

There are several things you can do to make food decisions easier and healthier. Kaszuba recommends a four-step approach when buying groceries:

  • Shop the perimeter. This is where produce, meat, and dairy are. These foods aren’t processed and are usually healthier than what you find in the middle of the store. 

  • Add a variety of colors, or “shop the rainbow”. Load up on fruits and vegetables whenever possible instead of sugary and salty snacks. 

  • Be curious about alternatives. Nowadays, there are dozens of gluten-free, low-sodium, and low-fat options available. For example, try substituting white flour pasta with pasta made from chickpeas or lentils.

  • Make a grocery list. A grocery list helps you stay focused. And, if you’re on a budget, it can help you avoid items you don’t need. 


Learning how to read nutrition facts labels can seem tedious at first. But if you know what the main components are and how they impact your health, you can make better decisions. 

All you have to do is determine the serving size, assess the calories, and look at the nutrients. Then, use that information to calculate how much of a particular food you should include in a meal or serving. 

Keep practicing and you’ll have a system down in no time!

Need Help?

Are you a family caregiver who’s recently taken over grocery shopping and meal prep? If so, you likely have questions. Our Caregiving Specialists are available 24/7 and can provide insights to make your job easier. 

Whether you have an inquiry about the products we carry or you need help interpreting food labels, we’re here to help. Call (800) 696-CARE or send an email to

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Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.