evaporated milk label

How to Determine the Nutritional Value of Food

Yes, you can determine the nutritional value of a product, by sending it to a laboratory. But, there are other (cheaper) ways to do so. For instance, you can use some simple math, as well as trustworthy literature sources.

Why determine the nutritional value of food?

Aside from being legally required on a food label in most countries worldwide, the nutritional value also serves to help customers make choices around the products they want to buy.

Some people may be in search of products high in protein, or can’t handle high amounts of sugar. The nutritional value label on a product tells a consumer exactly what is in a product. A consumer can literally determine what the nutritional value of a food is for their body. Does it provide energy? Or does it provide certain components that are crucial for their health?

Legislation differs between countries as to what has to be included on a nutritional value label and how such a label should look like. In the EU the 1169/2011 directive describes requirements with regards to labelling.

evaporated milk label

What is the nutritional value?

The ingredient list simply tells you which ingredients a food contains. The nutritional value digs a little deeper. It then analyzes what these ingredients are made up of and groups these components.

Energy content

First of, a nutritional value states how much energy a product contains. This is the amount of energy that a human body can get out of these ingredients. We all need energy on a daily basis to function properly.

Macronutrients

Secondly, the nutritional value states which types of molecules are present in the food and how many. These molecules are split into functional groups. The most common molecules are:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats
  • Proteins

These are macromolecules. Almost every food and drink contains at least one of these (except for pure water for instance). We humans need them to live. These ingredients are also the main energy source of foods.

Carbohydrates and fats can be split up into smaller groups of molecules. For instance, carbohydrates might be split into sugars, and fats can be split into saturated and unsaturated fats.

Want to learn more about carbohydrates, fats and proteins? We cover them in far greater detail in our Food Chemistry Basics course.

Micronutrients

There’s more to good food than just proteins, carbohydrates and fats. We also need certain vitamins and minerals. These can also be found on labels.

label pot pasta sauce

Keep in mind: foods are variable

Before attempting to determine the nutritional value of a product, keep in mind that foods are highly variable. The less processed a product is, the more this is the case.

  • An unripe vs. a ripe apple can make a huge difference with regard to the amount of sugar in the apple.
  • Cow’s milk has a different composition in summer than it does in winter.
  • Beef from a fat cow is different from that of a skinny cow.
  • Cocoa harvested from one species can be quite different from that of another species.
  • The leg of a chicken has quite a different fat content than the breast does.
  • Broccoli stems contain different components that the flowers do.

As such, it is almost impossible to give very precise correct nutritional values for food. There will almost always be some variations, simply because you can’t analyze every apple from a batch and give it a different value. Often nutritional values are averages for a specific product.

That does not mean nutritional values are useless. They still provide clear differences between products, just be aware that it is not as exact a science as you might think it is.

Determining the nutrient content in three ways

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to be updated on new food science articles.

Determining the nutritional value starts by determining how much of each of the components your food contains. So how much proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, etc. does your food contain?

There are three main ways in which you can determine these:

  1. The analytical route
  2. The literature route
  3. Using some math

1) Analyze the contents in a lab

There exist a wide range of analytical methods that can be performed on foods to determine their nutritional value. Methods exist to determine the types and amounts of sugar, fats, etc. Laboratories will state which methods are required to get a full nutritional profile of a product.

All of the analyses required are chemical analysis techniques. These techniques tend to only use very small amounts of sample to make a determination. Knowing how variable products can be, it is important to make sure that this small sample size is actually representative of the product you’re testing.

Once you’ve prepped the sample, let’s have a look at the possible analytical methods involved. Keep in mind that there may be more options than the ones mentioned below.

Protein analysis – Determining nitrogen content using Kjeldahl

Foods tend to contain a lot of different proteins. It is virtually impossible to analyze how much there is of each protein, nor does it provide a lot of added value. That’s why most labels only require the overall protein content.

Proteins are some of the only molecules in food that contain nitrogen. As such, by analyzing how much nitrogen a product contains, you can calculate the overall protein content. There are two main analysis techniques used for this: the Kjeldahl method and the Dumas method.

Depending on where you live, you might also need to take into account the quality of the protein. Some proteins are more ‘complete’ than others. Some countries require you to correct the overall protein content with a separately determined factor (e.g. a PDCAAS score).

Carbohydrate analysis

There exist a lot of different carbohydrates, from small to large. Unlike proteins, they don’t contain a unique atom. On the contrary, it is quite similar to fats. It’s why in a lot of cases, the carbohydrate content is etermined by taking the total mass of a product and subtracting all the other components (fats, protein, water, ash, etc.). What remains is assumed to be the carbohydrates.

If you do need to know exactly which types of sugars a product consists, it is possible to determine those using a technique called liquid chromatography.

Fat content analysis

Most of the fats in foods are the so-called triglycerides. An important property of fats is that they don’t dissolve in water. As such, they can be extracted from most products. This extraction method can be used to determine the overall content.

If you need to know exactly which tryglycerides are present in a food you will have to use a more advanced technique such as gas chromatography. This is however quite an expensive and complex technique.

2) Used published values from literature

Over time, a wide range of products have been analyzed for their nutritional content. When determining the nutritional value of your product, you might be able to use these existing values for your product.

A lot of countries have their own databases of generally acknowledged nutritional values for food products. The USDA, in the USA, has a very extensive, publicly accessible database. The Netherlands has one as well, as do many other countries.

Let’s start with the 2nd option: the literature route. In this case, no analysis of the actual final product is done. Instead, databases which contain a lot of data on nutritional values of all sorts of products are used.

label wasa crackers
When baking these crackers you evaporate a lot of moisture. This can make it challenging to determine the nutritional value just using calculations. Instead, you might need to use analytical methods.

3) Calculate your nutritional value

If your product is made with your own recipe and has a unique composition, you will not be able to find literature values for it. However, you may find the nutritional value of the ingredients that you used. If so, you can use those to calculate the nutritional value of your product.

You will have to know how much of your recipe is made up by each ingredient. It’s easiest to state this in percentages. Then, you can use these percentages to calculate how much of each nutrient your product contains.

As an example:

  • You product is made of 25% ingredient A and 75% ingredient B.
    • Ingredient A contains 10% fat and 50% carbohydrates
    • Ingredient B contains 7% protein
  • The overall composition will be:
    • Fat: 10 / 100 * 25 + 0 =2,5%
    • Carbohydrates: 50 / 100 * 25 = 12,5%
    • Protein: 7 / 100 * 75 = 5,25%

These calculations can be quite simple and reliable if all you’re doing is mixing ingredients. However, if a lot of chemical reactions take place in your product, or if significant amounts of water evaporate, this no longer works well. Some molecules might have reacted and become something different for instance.

Determining energy content is a simple calculation

Once you know the composition of your product, you can easily determine the energy content of your food. The energy content of a food is determined by the amount components that your body can use to make energy. These are the three macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fat, but also alcohol, polyols (strictly a type of carbohydrate) and fibers (also a carbohydrate type).

The energy content of a food is given in kcal (often referred to as Calories) and/or kJ (kilojoule). Converting from kcal to kJ is a simple set calculation

1 kcal = 4,18 kJ

Set conversion values

Research has shown how much energy our body can make from these macronutrients. We know that:

  • 1 gram of fats provides 9 kcal of energy
  • 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 kcal
  • 1 gram of fibers = 2 kcal
  • 1 gram of polyols = 2,4 kcal
  • 1 gram protein = 4 kcal
  • 1 gram of alcohol = 7 kcal

Calculation example

Using the conversion factors above, you can calculate the energy content of your food by multiplying these values by the amount of each of the macronutrients present.

As an example, let’s look at imaginary product A. In the table below we’ve given how much fat, proteins, and carbohydrates this product contains per 100g of the product. By multiplying these values by the given conversion factors and adding up the result, you can the overall energy content.

Content in the product (g/100g)Energy content (kcal/g)Energy in product (kcal/100g)
Fats 5945
Proteins 8432
Carbohydrates 3412
Total89 kcal
Calculating the energy content of imaginary product A.

Getting started

So, if you want to determine the nutritional value of your product, start by deciding whether you will be able to find relevant data in existing literature. If so, you can use those to calculate the nutritional value of your food, sometimes requiring some additional calculations. If not, you will have to send your product to a laboratory for analysis.

If you need to determine the nutritional value because you’re scaling up production, you might want to read our guide to scaling up.

References

Liliana Krotz, Elena Ciceri and Guido Giazzi, Protein Determination in Cereals and Seeds, August-1, 2008, link ; for more detail on protein determination

RIVM, NEVO online, link ; Dutch database with nutritional values for wide range of products

University of Massachusetts, 6. Analysis of Proteins, link ; for more detail on protein determination

USDA, Food Data Central, link ; very extensive database with nutritional values of a wide range of products

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our weekly newsletter

6 Comments

  1. I thought it was interesting that you mentioned how the EU has different regulations based on the nutritional value of the product. I lived in Europe before, but never noticed this difference. It’s great that there are regulations in place and that we can make informed decisions on our diets based off of this information.

  2. We always feel relaxed when we read about the nutrition part in our daily consumption. A very helpful post. Thank you for sharing.

  3. It’s surprising that nutritional value is cumilative proportional value of the raw products in any processed food. We know that many nutrients get affected (or lost) during heating & steaming. Hence, can any body give a clue on how (or methods) to test the nutrients in a home or a hotel …?!

    • Hi Kolavennu,

      That’s a great very valid point and it’s what makes nutritional values of unprocessed foods so complicated. It’s almost impossible to determine the ‘real’ nutritional value of food prepared in home kitchens/hotels, etc. It starts with storage, simply storing a broccoli for instance in your fridge for a week (or two) will change the nutritional value of that broccoli. And you’re right, how you prepare it will then change the nutritional value again. There’s been a lot of research in this space, but it’s hard to give solid guidelines here apart from more generic advice (e.g. steaming tends to be better for vitamin retention than boiling in water).
      That said, eating a varied diet, with variation in ingredients as well as preparation methods is probably your best bet in general. Also, keep in mind that every body processes nutrients differently as well, so it’s a bit of an illusion to get perfect nutritional values and perfect math, but the guidelines are great to help compare foods and make choices between those.

    • Hi Caroline,

      The easiest way is to go to one of the databases above, look up the values for your ingredients and then use your recipe to calculate the overall value for your product. If you’d like more help, please feel free to reach out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.