Food labels can be confusing if you’ve never been taught to read them or what to look for. Did you know that serving sizes on labels aren’t actually the recommended amount you should consume? Did you know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just updated nutrition labels to make them more user-friendly, relevant to consumer interests, and aligned with new research? The (FDA) created a 132-page Food Labeling Guide, but if you don’t feel like reading that, look below for the highlights.

Serving size

A little-known fact is that the Serving Size on nutrition labels is not the amount that is recommended to eat.

It is a law that the serving size listed must be based on the portion size an average person would normally consume of that item. The goal is to give consumers a more realistic idea of how many calories, grams of protein, grams of fiber, etc. they are getting from the amount they are eating. Because today’s portion sizes aren’t as small as they used to be, many serving sizes are being increased to keep up with the reality of what is typically eaten. For example, the serving size listed on the back of ice cream is a half cup, which is about one scoop. Rarely do you see anyone eating just one scoop of ice cream, so as of January 2018, the FDA has increased the serving size to two-thirds cup.

Calories and macronutrients

You may have noticed that the font size for “calories” on your nutrition label has increased significantly. This was on purpose, in hopes it would draw attention to the amount of energy you get from eating the given serving size. The other bolded terms on food labels include total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, and protein.

Fats, carbohydrates, and proteins are considered “macronutrients” because they are required in large amounts for normal functioning. Under "total fat" are two indented categories, saturated fat and trans fat. These are not additional grams of fat, but rather details about what kind of fat the total fat consists of.

Under “total carbohydrate” there are another couple of indented categories: dietary fiber and total sugars.

Both sugar and fiber are considered carbohydrates because of their chemical makeup. Just like with fat, the grams of fiber and sugar are just a description of where the grams of carbohydrates are coming from. For example, if total carbohydrates are 37 grams and fiber is four grams, that means four of the 37 grams of carbohydrates are coming from fiber and the other 33 grams are coming from a different carbohydrate source, like sugar or complex carbohydrates. A new category under carbohydrates has just been introduced: added sugars. This category will be very useful because it distinguishes between sugar that was added during processing or packaging and sugar that is naturally found in the food.

Micronutrients and vitamins

Micronutrients are substances that are needed by the body but are required in smaller amounts than macronutrients. Examples of micronutrients are vitamins, calcium, iron, sodium, and potassium, among many others. Certain nutrients are required to be on the label, including vitamin D, potassium, calcium, and iron since these nutrient recommendations are not always met by the typical American diet. Vitamin A and C used to be required on the food label, but are not required anymore since deficiencies in either vitamin are rare. Also included on labels is the percent daily value for every nutrient. The percent daily value is meant to help people understand how this food item might fit into a daily diet.

So if you see vitamin D is 10 percent of the daily value, that means one serving of the food item will give you 10 percent of the amount of vitamin D you need in a day. These values are usually based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Ingredient List

Even though the ingredient list is not technically part of the nutrition facts label, it is important to understand how it is organized. The most important thing to note is that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. For example, in tomato soup, tomatoes might be listed first, followed by water, and various seasonings. This gives you a good picture of the main ingredients in an item. A cereal might list “whole wheat flour” or “sugar” as their first ingredient and that will reveal a lot about the nutrient content and quality of the food.

As with anything, changing all nutrition labels to have the new requirements will take some time, so expect to see some new labels and some old labels on products in your grocery store. Food labels don’t have to be scary or confusing if you know how to read them and make informed decisions from them.