What Nutritional Labels Really Mean

Nutritional labels- often confusing for even the most sophisticated consumers- contain a lot of information. Some of it is useful. A good deal of it is not.

Let me explain.

Let’s start with the stuff that’s helpful to know. How much protein is in a serving size, for example? How many grams of carbs? How much sugar? And, of course, how many calories?

Assuming you know what these numbers mean, this can be good info to have.

For example, I recently got hold of a nice little package of berries, imported from another country where the rules governing nutritional labeling are different from what they are in the US. Here’s what was on the label:

Nutritional Facts
Portion: 6 oz
Calories 83
Protein 1.7 g
Fat 1.2 g
Carb 17g
Calcium 46 mg
Potassium 245 mg
Vitamin A 288 IU
Vitamin C 30 mg

Now as labels go, that’s pretty useful. I would have preferred to see fiber listed (the berries are very high in fiber, which you wouldn’t know from this label).  I think the choice of “calcium, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C” is fairly arbitrary (what happened to magnesium? Iron? Vitamin B12?) but different countries have different regulations about what must be listed on the label. (In the USA, for example, food manufacturers are required to list only calcium, iron, vitamin A and vitamin C. Go figure.)

So all things considered, the imported berry label’s not bad.

In the US, a typical label looks like this:

The first thing I have a problem with is the “Calories from Fat” part in the upper right hand corner.

This implies that calories from fat are somehow a bad thing, worse for you than calories from any other source. It’s literally screaming out at you “Warning! Watch out for this stuff!” (The “Calories from Fat” listing on a tablespoon of fish oil would be 100% of the total calories, since fish oil is pure fat. So what?) And calling out of saturated fat for special attention perpetuates the myth that saturated fat is always bad (it’s not).

On the plus side, the labeling laws do mandate that manufacturers list the number of grams of trans-fats. Trans-fats are almost always bad (unlike saturated fat) and you should strive to keep your dietary intake of them as close to zero as possible. If something has trans-fats in it, I want to know about it. Even one gram is too much*.

*The exception to the rule is CLA, a natural trans-fat found in the meat and milk of grass-fed cows

Sodium is another thing to pay attention to. While not everyone is “salt-sensitive” (meaning their blood pressure goes up in response to sodium) enough of us are that it’s worth knowing about. Current dietary recommendations are to consume no more than 2300-2400 mg of sodium per day (about the amount in a teaspoon of salt)—the problem is that  most of our sodium doesn’t come from the saltshaker. It comes from processed foods. If a portion of soup contains 800 mg of sodium, I want to know about it.

The really useless- and confusing- part of the nutrition facts label is that column on the right where it lists “Percent  Daily Value”.

There are many things to dislike about this “Percent Daily Value” – for example, everything.

As the label implies, “Percent Daily Value” is based on another number (the “Daily Value”). The Daily Value is the amount of a given nutrient that the Food and Drug Administration thinks you need each day. (The “Percent Daily Value” is the percentage of that amount found in the food whose label you’re reading.)

For example, let’s take the vitamin C in this generic serving of mac and cheese (listed on the label above). The FDA’s recommended daily intake for vitamin C is 60 mg ( an amount no nutritionist I’ve ever met thinks is optimal or even adequate). Now let’s do some math: The label says a serving of mac and cheese contains “2% of the Daily Value for Vitamin C”. Two percent of 60 mg is….1.2 mg of vitamin C. (That’s 1 point 2 mg.) You can tell from the label that 2% is awfully low, and you’d be right in thinking this food has virtually no vitamin C.

So far, so good. But then it can get tricky.

Let’s suppose that mac and cheese had 30 mg of vitamin C. Then the label would say 50%. You’d be thinking “wow, I’m getting a lot of vitamin C in this dish” but in fact you’d be getting a ridiculously low amount (30 mg) that only has a high “percent daily value” cause the Daily Value itself is so low.

(If you’re confused, think about money. If someone tells you he’s going to give you 50% of all the money he has  in the world, you might think, “WOW—50%!!”- until you learn that all the money he has in the world is ten bucks.)

It gets even trickier when you’re talking about percentages as they relate to carbs, fat and protein. Again, the FDA makes a ridiculous assumption, which is that the average diet is either 2000 calories a day or 2500. Then it makes other assumptions about the ideal amount of protein, fat and carbs that you should be consuming daily for that amount of calories, assumptions that are well,, highly questionable. (Many researchers believe that 50 grams a day of protein is pathetically low, especially for weight loss purposes, yet that’s the amount of the recommended “Daily Value”. And many health professionals get apoplectic at the “Daily Value” for carbohydrates- 300 grams a day!)

So if the label tells you you’re getting 30% of the daily value of protein, you might think that’s a lot, but it’s 30% of a very low amount. (Think back to that guy who’s giving you 50% of his fortune!) And a food with a whopping 150 grams of carbs (like an average restaurant portion of pasta)  is “only” half the recommended daily amount for carbohydrates. Give me a break!

My advice: Ignore the Percent Daily Value on the Nutrition Facts Label. They’re confusing, misleading and add almost nothing to your knowledge.

Pay attention, however to the numbers for calories, protein, carbs, fat and fiber. And of course to sugar, which is way more important than fat as a health hazard.


For those who’d like to know, here are the current “Daily Values” (recommended amounts) of nutrients (like vitamins) and macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs). They’re not all bad- but many are out of date (selenium, vitamin D) and some (300 grams of carbs, 50 grams of protein) are simply ridiculous (carbs are way too high, protein is too low). In our opinion, these values are compromises based on statistical models that have little relevance to the “average” person. The “percent daily value” on your nutrition facts label is based entirely on these numbers, and if the numbers are wrong, the “percent daily value” is next to useless.

Nutrient Daily Value
Total fat 65 grams (g)
Saturated fat 20 g
Cholesterol 300 milligrams (mg)
Sodium 2,400 mg
Potassium 3,500 mg
Total carbohydrate 300 g
Dietary fiber 25 g
Protein 50 g
Vitamin A 5,000 international units (IU)
Vitamin C 60 mg
Calcium 1,000 mg
Iron 18 mg
Vitamin D 400 IU
Vitamin E 30 IU
Vitamin K 80 micrograms (mcg)
Thiamin 1.5 mg
Riboflavin 1.7 mg
Niacin 20 mg
Vitamin B-6 2 mg
Folate 400 mcg
Vitamin B-12 6 mcg
Biotin 300 mcg
Pantothenic acid 10 mg
Phosphorus 1,000 mg
Iodine 150 mcg
Magnesium 400 mg
Zinc 15 mg
Selenium 70 mcg
Copper 2 mg
Manganese 2 mg
Chromium 120 mcg
Molybdenum 75 mcg
Chloride 3,400 mg

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2008