How to Read Nutrition Fact Labels: Step One in Healthy Eating

By Frank Alvarez – Health Coach

The process of determining if a food is nutritious or not is arduous at best.   The Dietary Guidelines for Americans have all been developed into user-friendly recommendations for how Americans should choose their foods.

The guidelines are a relationship between the USDA Food Guide, My Plate, and Healthy People 2010.   Healthy 2020 is in the works.

healthy people 2010

We often get questions like:

  1. How can I choose nutritious foods?
  1. What’s on a nutrition label?
  1. Does it mean anything to me?
  1. Are food labels regulated?
  1. What are DRI, RDA, AI, DV, %DV, and UL?

Here is how it all works:

The DRI’s (Dietary Reference Intakes) include 2 sets of numbers that serve as goals for nutrient intake. They are the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) and Adequate Intakes (AI).

The RDA’s reflect the average daily amount of a nutrient considered adequate to meet the needs of most people in a population. The AI’s where developed for nutrients that do not have enough scientific data to be given a RDA, which subsequently are given an AI. The Tolerable Upper Limit (TUL) is the recommended maximum of a nutrient someone should consume.

In Cronometer the Nutrient Targets shows your nutrition targets for the day. Each target has an optional minimum and maximum value. By default, the minimum is set to the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) value for your body type, and the maximum is set to the Tolerable Upper Limit (TUL), when available. You should strive to get at least 100% of your daily targets from your diet to prevent malnourishment.

Below is a partial view of the nutrients section on the diary page. Along the top you can see a seven nutrients that the user can track from a vast list of choices. The colors indicate if you have met the DRI for that nutrient (green) or are still below it (yellow). By scrolling over the icons you can see the actual amounts of the that nutrient you have consumed according to what is currently in your diary.

Crono nutrient targets3

Further below you will see many more things that are tracked in Cronometer. The colors correspond in the same manner as we just explained above with an added feature of the nutrient turning red if you consume too much of it and it is a recommended not to. (sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat etc.) By scrolling over these values a pop up window will show you which foods the value is coming from.

Crono nutrient targets2

When you read a nutrition facts label you will encounter a different set of numbers. The Daily Value (DV) is the recommended intake of a nutrient based on either a 2,000 or 2,500 kcal diet. The percent Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of the recommended intake (DV) of a nutrient provided by a single serving of a food.

The DV and %DV were created to give consumers a benchmark for know whether a food is a good source of nutrients and allowing them to easily compare one food with another. The DV and %DV is used for nutrition labeling, NOT what is adequate for humans. The RDA value, or the AI value if no RDA can be determined, is what is used to determine an adequate intake level.

Food labels are regulated, and the %DV really only tells us if a food is a good or bad source for the nutrients that it contains.

Here is a good guide to keep close until you learn to read labels well:

Nutrition November 2015.

Here is a summary of what the above chart states:

  1. Start with the serving size and be sure to understand what one serving really is. It usually is not the entire can or box, but a portion of that.
  1. The average person should consume about 2000 calories per day, less if not active. Remember that the calories listed on the label will be only for the serving size, not the whole package.
  1. Total fat tells you how much fat is in one serving of the product you are looking at. It includes fats our bodies need and unhealthy fats we should limit.
  1. Sodium is a salt and adults should aim for less than 2300 mg of sodium per day. Remember this is not just table salt, it is the salt already present in foods. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease; are over 50, or are of African American descent, it is recommended to consume less than 1500 mg daily.
  2. Total carbohydrates listed include sugars, dietary fibers, and other carbohydrates. Try to get the majority of your carbohydrates from vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and beans. Look for foods with more fiber and less sugar. Sugars on the label include both natural and added sugars. Foods with only natural sugars will show a number next to sugars on the label, but will not show any sugar-words in the ingredient list.
  1. As a rule of thumb, the fewer the ingredients a product has, the healthier it is. The ingredients are listed in descending order, from greatest amount to least. If you see sugar as the first ingredient, it is high in sugar.

Be cautious of some marketing labels you will see on packages. Reduced fat, low fat, and light may not be as healthy as they lead on to be, or at all. A low fat food can be high in sugar or calories, while offering little that is good for you.

I hope this blog serves to help you understand nutrition labels and how Cronometer derives the information you see. In our next blog we will discuss how to customize the nutrient levels, if you desire, and how that may be beneficial for you.

Please comment here and let us know your thoughts and questions.


  1. McGuire, Michelle, Beerman, Kathy A. (2011). Nutritional Sciences From Fundamentals to Food. (2nd ) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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