Interpreting a Nutrition Label

About 77 million Americans have low health literacy (PDF, 609 KB), meaning they struggle with regular activities such as interpreting basic health information, following medication directions, and adhering to a physician’s instructions.

Research shows that a shaky foundation in health literacy creates poor health outcomes throughout life. Individuals with low health literacy are more likely to engage in high-risk health behaviors like smoking. A parent’s literacy level can affect their child’s health, too—children with asthma experience worse care measures when their parents have low literacy.

Baylor University Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences Associate Professor Beth Lanning, PhD, MCHES, said that health literacy is part of the foundation of a successful health interaction. “If [patients] don’t understand the information they’re being given, they’re not going to use that information,” she said.

There are disparities among the population when it comes to who is most likely to have low health literacy. Adults below the poverty level and uninsured or publicly insured individuals tend to be less health literate, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education on the health literacy of adults (PDF, 1.2 MB). Additionally, members of racial and ethnic minorities and individuals who did not graduate high school also have lower health literacy levels.

Lanning was a member of a team of Baylor faculty who researched the effectiveness of several health literacy measurement tools. The study, led by fellow Baylor professor Kelly Ylitalo, PhD, outlines two tests: the Newest Vital Sign (NVS) nutrition label test (PDF, 1.5 MB) and a single-item confidence questionnaire.

The NVS measures numeric and health literacy and tests a patient’s math and reading skills with six questions about a sample ice cream nutrition label. Lanning said this test is less about someone’s ability to describe the purpose of calories or the nutritional value of fiber and instead focuses on comprehension skills. Some examples of questions on the NVS are:

  • If you eat the entire pint of ice cream, how many calories will you consume?
  • If you are allergic to peanuts, is it safe for you to eat this ice cream?
  • If you are allowed to eat 60 grams of carbohydrates as a snack, how much ice cream could you have?

“Not only is it being able to read and know what to look for, but you also have to do some calculations,” said Lanning. “You’re asking [patients], ‘How many calories would you eat if you had the whole container?’ It’s understanding serving levels within that container and multiplying that.”

How to Read A Nutrition Label: Instructions

Illustration of nutrition label giving an example of a breakdown of nutrition facts

Serving size

The nutritional information listed applies to what amount of food? All the information on a nutritional label is for 1 serving.

Servings per container tells you how many servings are in the entire package. In this example, a serving is 3 cookies, and there are 6 servings (or 18 cookies) total.

Ingredients

What is in this product? Ingredients are listed from the greatest to least amount. Here, sugar is the most used ingredient. Read the ingredients list if allergens are a concern.

Calories

How many calories are in one serving? In this example, 3 cookies are 150 calories. You can find out how many of those calories come from fat by referring to the food label section, “Calories from fat.”

Raw Amount

How much of each nutrient is in 1 serving? This is shown in grams (g) or milligrams (mg). In this example, there are 100 mg of sodium in 1 serving.

Percent Daily Value

What portion of the daily recommended nutrients are in 1 serving? Values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. In this example, 1 serving has 7 grams of fat, which is 11 percent of a person’s daily recommended fat intake.

How to Read A Nutrition Label: Practice

Want to quiz yourself on these skills? Use MPH@Baylor’s nutrition label worksheet and determine if you can pass levels 1, 2, and 3.

Click here to download the fillable PDF Practice Reading a Nutritional Label (PDF, 357 KB).

Citation for this content: The MPH online program from Baylor University's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences