Search IconSearch

What Can You Learn From a Nutrition Label?

Information on serving size, calories and nutrients can help you make healthy choices

Person standing in front of oversized nutrition label, reading it

If you want to really know what you’re eating, take the time to read the nutrition label on the package.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

This information-packed box of text and numbers breaks down what’s in food and drinks. If you know what to look for, the process of putting together nutritious and healthy meals can be much easier.

Let’s take a closer look at what you can learn with the help of registered dietitians Kayla Kopp, RD, LD, and Beth Czerwony, RD, LD.

What is a nutrition label?

Nutrition labels are meant to be helpful tools for making healthy food choices. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revamped the “Nutrition Facts” label in 2016 to help people know what they’re putting into their bodies.

There’s a lot of information jammed into the small, rectangular boxes printed on packaged foods and drinks. Here’s what you’ll see and what you can gain from it.

Serving size

What you consider one serving of your favorite food may be … well, MORE than one serving as defined by the FDA.

The serving size noted on a product’s nutrition label reflects the amount of the food people typically consume in one sitting. It could be listed as a count (such as 15 crackers). It might be done as a ratio (like 1/4 of a pizza). It may be by volume (as in cups or fluid ounces).

Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, misjudging serving size is common. “People routinely underestimate what a serving is,” says Kopp. “More often than not, you’re probably eating more than one.”

Given that serving size provides the foundation for the rest of the nutrition label, that’s a significant issue. Information on calories, fats, nutrients and more is based on what’s defined as a serving.

To help consumers, some nutrition labels now include a row of facts based on the contents of the entire package. Anyone who has wiped out a pint of ice cream in a single sitting understands that logic.

“It’s an addition based on what people might eat,” notes Czerwony. “It gives a better understanding of what you’re eating without requiring you to do math based on the number of servings in a package.”

If you want to get a handle on serving size, Kopp suggests measuring your foods and drinks to see what’s considered a single helping. (WARNING: The results may surprise you.)


It’s hard to miss calorie counts on nutrition labels. They’re highlighted in BIG BOLD PRINT at the top of nutrition labels. There’s a reason for this, too: Calories are extremely important for health.


Let’s start with the basics: Calories measure energy. The calorie number you see on a nutrition label reflects the available energy in foods and drinks, explains Kopp. You need to consume calories for your body to function.

But the key is balancing the calories you take in with the calories your body burns as fuel. Eating more calories than your body uses can lead to obesity and overweight and related health issues.

A diet of 2,000 calories a day is considered adequate for most people. But individual calorie needs can vary greatly depending on a person’s age, sex, height, weight and activity level.

So, with that as background, how can you use calorie counts on nutrition labels to help make meal choices?

In general, says Kopp that a food with about 100 calories per serving is a moderately caloric food that fits into a healthy diet. Try to avoid or limit high-calorie foods that have 400 or more calories per serving.

And as noted, keep serving sizes in mind when calculating total calories. “If you eat a package of cookies that contains three servings, you’ve eaten three times the number of calories listed on the nutrition label,” says Kopp.


Information on key nutrients fills the center of nutrition labels. Some of these nutrients ­— such as dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D — are important for good health yet often lacking in people’s diets.

Other listed nutrients — like saturated fat, added sugars and sodium — are often over-eaten and linked to various health conditions.

Let’s take a closer look at what you can learn and how you can use that knowledge.


The largest number you’ll see here is for total fats, but it’s not the most important piece of information. “The real key is saturated fats and trans fats,” says Czerwony. “Those are the ones that can contribute to heart disease and other health issues.”

Food high in saturated fat includes fatty cuts of beef and pork or poultry with skin, plus animal-based food such as eggs and full-fat dairy products. Baked goods, fried foods and many highly processed snacks are also chock full of it.

Ideally, saturated fats should account for no more than 5% to 6% of your daily caloric intake, which equals about 100 to 120 calories. (A gram of saturated fat is 9 calories, so multiply the grams of saturated fat in a product by 9 to calculate calories from saturated fat.)


As bad as saturated fats are, trans fats are worse. That explains why the FDA banned them in 2018. But small amounts can still be found in some packaged foods.


Globally, it’s estimated that nearly 40% of the adult population has high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia). This excess of lipids (or fats) in your blood increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

So, should you be watching this number closely? It might not be necessary if you’re watching your saturated fats. “Most foods that are high in dietary cholesterol are also high in saturated fat,” says Kopp.

But if you do want to track cholesterol intake, it’s best to stay below 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol a day on the typical 2,000-calorie diet.


In many ways, sodium (and salt) gets a bad rap. The truth is your body needs sodium. It’s an important electrolyte that balances fluid levels in your body and helps your nerves and muscles work well.

But the problem is that most of us consume too much sodium. Overdoing it can contribute to health issues such as high blood pressure, stroke and kidney damage.

Kopp suggests keeping sodium intake to less than 600 mg for each of your three daily meals and less than 200 mg for two daily snacks. (It’s recommended that daily consumption stays below 2,300 mg.)

If you start looking at labels, you might be surprised to see where sodium hides. Examples of high-sodium foods include:

  • Canned soups.
  • Condiments like soy sauce and BBQ sauce.
  • Frozen meals.
  • Pickles and olives.
  • Processed meats.



Carbohydrates can be complicated, with a good side and a not-so-good side. The nutrition label offers a glimpse at both with information on dietary fiber (the good) and sugar (not-so-good).

  • Dietary fiber works to aid digestion, prevent constipation and promote weight loss — all pretty desirable attributes. Aim to get at least 25 to 35 grams of fiber every day, says Kopp.
  • Added sugars contribute to empty or non-nutritional calories that can lead to weight gain. They’re abundant in various food items ranging from processed white breads to desserts, salad dressings and cereals. U.S. dietary guidelines recommend getting no more than 48 grams (12 teaspoons) of added sugar per day.

People with prediabetes and diabetes often need to closely watch the consumption of carbohydrates, which raise blood sugar.


Protein deficiency usually isn’t an issue for most people given typical diets, but it’s possible to go overboard. Kopp recommends aiming for 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal. (Needs may increase if you’re trying to build muscle or recover from an injury.)

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals help your body grow, develop and work properly. Depending on the product, a nutrition label may list up to 14 different vitamins and 14 different minerals.

But all nutrition labels must include the following nutrients, which many people are lacking in their diet:

  • Calcium, which promotes strong teeth and bones, aids blood clotting and regulates heart rhythms and nerve functions.
  • Vitamin D, which helps strengthen bones and regulate blood pressure and hormones.
  • Iron to keep blood oxygenated and healthy, preventing anemia. It also protects against infections and aids growth and development, especially during pregnancy.
  • Potassium, an electrolyte that helps support healthy blood pressure.

Health officials have called the vitamins and minerals listed above “nutrients of public health concern.” Low intakes of them can lead to serious health problems like anemia, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Percent daily value (% DV)

The righthand column of a nutrition facts label lists the percentage of the daily value (written as % DV) for each nutrient in one serving of a food or drink. You can use this number to figure out whether a food is high or low in a particular nutrient.

A nutrient with a 5% DV or lower is considered to have a low daily value. A nutrient with a 20% DV or above has a high daily value.

Overall, it’s generally better to have a:

  • Lower % DV for added sugar, sodium and saturated fat.
  • Higher % DV for fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Why nutrition labels matter

When you understand how to read a nutrition label correctly, it can help you compare and choose between different brands or similar products. Learning how the numbers on the nutrition label affect your overall health can help you make informed grocery purchases.

“View nutrition labels as a trusted source of information,” says Czerwony. “Educate yourself on them. It takes a little bit of time, but it’s a small investment given what it can mean for your health.”


Learn more about our editorial process.

Health Library
Nutrition Problems and Their Solutions

Related Articles

Assorted whole-grain foods, fruits, vegetables and nuts
June 21, 2024/Nutrition
Eating for Energy: Foods That Fight Fatigue

What’s on your plate can either help power you through your day or put you in nap mode

Piles of sugar alcohol
June 17, 2024/Nutrition
What You Should Know About Sugar Alcohols

Often labeled as ‘diabetes-friendly’ or ‘calorie-free,’ these sugar substitutes warrant caution

Person prepping mason jars with meals
June 14, 2024/Nutrition
Should You Eat the Same Thing Every Day? Learn the Pros and Cons

Repeating your meals can help simplify meal planning and counting calories, but it could also lead to boredom and nutritional deficiencies

Person looking in fridge, filled with salad, milk, berries, veggies, juice
June 12, 2024/Wellness
Power Up: 10 Ways To Boost Your Energy Naturally

Making certain food and lifestyle choices can help keep your battery full

Person contemplating healthy food choices with protein
June 7, 2024/Nutrition
How Much Protein Do You Need? And How To Get It

The general rule is 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight — but that may not be right for you, and it’s important to determine what’s right for you

Wooden spoon with pink Himalayan salt over glass of water, with container of pink Himalayan salt
June 6, 2024/Nutrition
What Is Sole Water? And Why Are People Drinking It?

Adding salt to your water isn’t going to have measurable benefits — but there may be plenty of downsides

Big open jar of pickles
May 22, 2024/Nutrition
Are Pickles Good for You?

Pickles are low in fat and calories and rich in some vitamins and minerals, but they’re usually high in sodium

Shirataki Miracle noodles on chopsticks and in red bowl
May 20, 2024/Nutrition
4 Reasons To Give Shirataki (Miracle) Noodles a Try

Fiber-rich shirataki noodles may improve blood sugar, aid in digestion and help with weight loss

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims