Home Food 101 Comprehending Calories: How To Properly Read A Nutrition Label

Comprehending Calories: How To Properly Read A Nutrition Label

by Erika Nicole Kendall

To those who subscribe to BGG2WL via e-mail, the last post, “Comprehending Calories: The Role of Carbs In Your Diet,” was cut off by the distributor – click here for the post in its entirety!

We eat the foods, but how often do we take a look at the stuff on the side? Yes, all those numbers, lines, and percentages… they’re supposed to mean something, but… must.. hurry.. purchase… yummies…

Well, with any luck, we have a better understanding of the nutrients that make up our foods. From here, the next step is applying that to our shopping skills to make the best decisions possible for not only weight loss, but better health altogether.

A lot of us may have pretty solid understandings of the nutrition facts label, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was pretty lost myself at times… and in my frustration, I’d let my hunger overtake my good sense, utter a curse word and throw it in the cart. Hey… no shame in my game.

Well, maybe a little.

Let’s get down to business, shall we?

To the left, you will find the nutrition label found on the side of a box of hamburger helper. I’m personally tickled by the fact that it offers the calorie count for the product “as packaged,” as well as “as prepared.” I mean, I’m sure people use parts of uncooked hamburger helper in other recipes.. I guess.

You’ll also notice that the top of the label lists that there are ten servings per container. This means that the entire contents of this box should be divided by ten to provide you with one serving size. Lucky for you, you’ll have to do any portion dividing on your own. (Or, perhaps you’re like many of the other people I know who eat several servings at a time.. and may need to multiply everything by that number.)

Next, you should see the calorie count, and the calories from fat listed underneath. Remember how I told you that for every gram of fat, you get 9 calories and every gram of carbs as well as protein gives you 4 calories… thus making up our calorie counts? Well, here is that in action:

.5g of fat multiplied by 9 calories = 4.5 calories. You’ll notice that the calories from Fat says 5 calories. So far, so good.

25g of carbs, 4 calories for each gram? 25×4=100 calories.

3g of protein, 4 calories for each gram? 3×4=12 calories.

4.5 + 100 + 12 = 117.5calories. If you’ll notice, the calorie count is listed as 120. How considerate. They rounded up. (Or, there is some rounding down going on in those 25.4g counts…)

Moving on.. you may also notice the “% Daily Value**” (or PDV) directly beneath the “Calories from Fat” line. You’ll also see two rows or numbers directly beneath that. The “% Daily Value” simply tells you “Of the amount recommended to you by the federal government, this serving will give you this percent.” So, yes, this one serving of hamburger – 1/10th of what you’ve cooked – will give you a little more than 1/3rd of your recommended daily serving of salt.

If you follow the double asterisks (**) to the near-bottom of the package, you’ll read the following: “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.” 2,000 may be higher than your caloric goals for the day, so you’ll need to keep that in mind when you look at the percentages.

On each package of hamburger helper, they offer instructions on how to prepare it. The number on the left offers information on what the bare bones package offers you. To the right, you’re looking at the information for the meal, if prepared by their instructions to a tee. The items listed – sodium, fat, carbs, cholesterol, etc – are pretty much the bare minimum of what has to be listed on the label. This one lists potassium on its label because anyone conscious about sodium will know that you can balance its effects with a good dosage of potassium. Leave off and round down where you can, but shine as much light on yourself as possible when it helps.

The next section lists the PDV of the essential nutrients you’ll get from one serving of this stuff. It may also tell you – as it does here – “not a reliable source of protein/vitamin c/vitamin z.”

The next two sections are particularly interesting – well, to me, at least… but I like these kinds of things. They’re basically giving you basic calorie/nutrient requirements for a person living on either a 2,000 calorie (presumably for women) or a 2,500 calorie (presumably for men) daily diet. You’ll have to determine for yourself if that’s too high, too low, or a good base for yourself.

Lastly… the ingredients list. This one, to me, deserves it’s own post on its own.. but I’ll be nice today. Just know a few things: 1) If you skim back up to the “Total Fat” and see “0.0g trans fat,” then skim back down to the ingredients list and see “partially hydrogenated something oil,” there’s trans fat in it. That “0.0g” merely means there’s “less than .5g of trans fat in this serving.” You didn’t know that “rounding down” is considered acceptable by our government? As I’ve written before, what makes this especially challenging is the fact that people will easily – easily – eat more than one serving of this stuff in one sitting.. so 3 servings in one sitting means three servings of 0.49g of trans fats, which EASILY turns into 1.47g of trans fat. I find that appalling, but whatever. If trans fat is in the item, it has to be listed in the ingredients list.. so you can spot it. I’ll definitely have to do a more in depth post about the ingredients list but that’s the most important thing, at least to me, about that list.

My philosophy on it is this – if it has to have a nutrition label to tell me what’s going on inside of it, chances are I shouldn’t be eating it anyhow. But for those times that we have to bite the bullet and dive in, hopefully this will serve as a quick (is it ever really “quick?”) little handy guide to understanding the labels.

But really… stop buying stuff with labels and packages. 🙂

You may also like


Ashley May 7, 2010 - 8:35 PM

Another great article….Keep them coming

Dana May 18, 2011 - 11:29 AM

Oh. My. Word.

I grew up on Hamburger Helper. My mom was a single mom with four daughters and minimal education (she eventually became a nurse and got remarried and we got off the “Helper” hehe), so she could buy tons of this stuff and we could cook it ourselves.

First of all, you GOT ME at 10 servings. I ate this stuff for YEARS and never noticed that it was TEN servings! My sisters were elementary school kids and I was a middle/high schooler when we ate this stuff, and we would polish it ALL off ourselves. We were kids and we ate at least 3 servings each!!

I totally shut down when I saw that Hamburger Helper has MSG.

I am just too through.

kymlee June 17, 2011 - 11:04 AM

When i started paying attention to nutrition labels, i started eating closer to the source. No hamburger helper in years now. I can’t believe a box is supposed to be 10 servings. There is no bang for your cheap and easy (but not easily earned) buck there.

Kitana January 11, 2013 - 1:37 PM

I cannot believe Hamburger Helper is supposed to be 10 servings!! WTF.

I was thinking today about how I eat canned soup for lunch every day at work because it’s easy to throw together and now… I know I need to figure some other ish out real quick. 😐

AkephalonMuse February 14, 2013 - 8:02 PM

I’ve noticed that serving sizes on boxes tend to be ludicrously small like that when there are PHO’s (partially hydrogenated oils) in the ingredients. It’s like that so they can get away with saying that a serving has zero grams of trans fat in it. (The most egregious example of this: nondairy creamer. If you want to have a few nightmares, check that out. It’s why I switched back to cream/milk.)

Comments are closed.