Reading Nutrition Labels

— Written By Debbie Stephenson and last updated by

The other day I was at a friend’s house and noticed she had 16 cans of green beans on her counter. “What in the world?” I asked. “What are you making with all those green beans?”  “Green Bean casserole” she responded. “I realized when I was unpacking my grocery bags that I made a mistake.”  “I needed 8 cups of beans for my recipe. I looked at the back of the can to see how many cans I needed and read that a serving size was ½ cup. So, I figured I needed 16 cans for 8 cups of beans. “When I got home I realized that each can actually had 3.5 cups of beans and that I only needed 3 cans! Thankfully I still have the receipt and can take the extra 13 cans back to the store.”

Wow, has that ever happened to you before? Have you ever been confused when looking at a nutrition label? You are not alone. When you understand how to read food labels you can make better choices in what you serve your family. Grab a box, bag or can of food and let’s breakdown what is listed.

The serving size and servings per container is found at the top. The serving size is a measurement and the information on the label applies to one serving. The servings per container information guides you in buying enough for your recipe or to feed your family. The calories, fat, cholesterol etc. on the label corresponds to the serving size. If you eat the entire bag, box, can, etc., you have to multiple those numbers by the servings per container.

The % Daily Value is found on the right side of the label. This corresponds to the information found at the very bottom of the label. There you will find the daily recommendations for fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates and fiber. The percent daily value column is always based on a 2000-calorie diet. (Note there are two-calorie columns, one for 2000 and one for 2500. Eating less or more than 2000 calories in a day will change the recommendations.) The recommendations do not take into account individual medical conditions and it is best to consult your doctor if you have any questions.

Some nutrients like sodium, fat and cholesterol should be limited. The nutrients we want to get enough of include fiber, vitamins, calcium, iron, etc. If the % Daily Value is 5% or less, it is low in that nutrient. If is 20% or more, it is high in that nutrient. This is a helpful tool to make wise food decisions. To get more information on reading nutrition labels, go to and read more on Ingredients, Packaging and Labeling.

For more information, Debbie Stephenson may be reached at North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Harnett County by calling 910-893-7530.

Debbie Stephenson is Program Associate for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Harnett County.