Life might not come with a manual, but your food does! Whether you have sensitivities, want to lose weight, or just eat healthier, nutrition labels are your key to success. Once you’ve flipped, twisted, and twirled your box of cereal around and located the label, the numbers and information staring back at you can be confusing. Percentage signs and serving size calculations will transport you out of aisle 3 and back to high school math class. Before you wave your receipt in defeat and opt to trust the eye-catching labels on the box promising the product is “low-calorie” and “packed with fiber,” take a few minutes to explore the ins and outs of nutrition labels. Your health, and waistline, will thank you.
How to Read a Nutrition Label
There are four different components to a standard nutrition label. By understanding each one, you can rest assured you are making the healthiest choice for you and your family.
The first thing you want to look at is the serving size. This is what the rest of the values on the label are based on. Companies will often lower a serving size to give the food you’re buying the illusion of being healthier than it is. Take, for example, a bag of potato chips. They list a serving size as 1 oz, 28 grams, or approximately 15 chips. When was the last time you ate just 15 chips? What you might not realize is there are almost eight 1-ounce servings of chips in the bag. That means all the nutritional information you read needs to be multiplied by eight to give a full picture of how many calories are in your purchase.
In the U.S., companies are required to list the number of servings per package. However, if you are traveling or indulging in an imported treat, that number might not be there. If this happens, simply divide the total number of grams in the item (usually found on the front of the packaging) by the number of grams in one serving size.
Calories provide your body with energy. This number signifies how many calories are in one serving size. Make sure you take that into account when assessing how many calories you have consumed. As we all know, eating more calories than we burn during a day can lead to weight gain. If you want to lose weight, look for foods that are low in calories but high in nutrients. Anything over 400 calories per serving should be limited in your diet.
% Daily Value (%DV) and Footnote
This number reflects what percentage of a nutrient is found in a single serving. The percentage is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. This number is meant to help you get an idea of how nutritional a food is. If your food has a % DV less than 5 percent, it is considered low in nutrients; if it is above 20 percent, it is high in nutrients.
This is a general rule. If you are on a special diet or limiting calories, you may need to add or subtract from these numbers.
The information at the bottom of the label is called the footnote. It outlines how many grams of fat, sodium, fiber, carbohydrates, and cholesterol you should consume on 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diets.
The total fat shown on a nutrition label is a combination of three types of fat. They are unsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fat.
Unsaturated fat, or “good fat,” is found in liquid form at room temperature and offers a variety of health benefits. It is often referred to as a “heart-healthy” fat. Foods that contain this type of fat include avocados, nuts, eggs, fish, and vegetable oils.
Saturated fat is solid at room temperature. It is often found in meat and dairy and is to be consumed in moderation. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming no more than 13 grams of saturated fats per day (based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet).
Trans fat is the worst type of fat you can consume and should be avoided at all costs. It is man-made and found in most processed foods due to its ability to extend shelf life. Common products containing trans fats include baked goods, potato chips, fried food, creamers, and margarine. This fat is known to raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol and can put you at risk for heart disease and diabetes.
A chemical element found in salt, sodium helps with muscle contractions, nerve transmissions, hydration, and maintaining pH balance. Most adults should not consume more than 1500 mg of sodium per day.
- The total carbohydrate count on a nutrition label includes both fiber and sugar. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body takes a long time to digest and, thus, leaves you feeling full longer. Whole fruits, vegetables, and grains all contain fiber.
- If you subtract the grams of fiber from the total carbohydrates, you will be left with total grams of sugar per serving. The grams of sugar include both natural sugar and added sugar. Eating too much added sugar can lead to weigh gain, diabetes, and heart disease, to name a few issues. Be cautious when inquiring about sugar content in a food product. Manufacturers have a lot of synonyms for sugar to choose from that can leave a consumer confused. Some of the more common words used in place of sugar are: sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, concentrated fruit juice, honey, fruit nectar, sugar cane juice, beet sugar, and golden syrup.
- The AHA suggests limiting your daily sugar intake to 9 teaspoons for men and 6 teaspoons for women. To put that into perceptive, one can of soda has 9.5 teaspoons of sugar.
- Protein is one of the basic building blocks of your body. It provides you with energy and aids in muscle recovery. When people think about protein, images of juicy steaks and ribs sizzling on the grill often come to mind first. However, protein can also be found in nuts, legumes, seeds, tofu, dairy, chicken, and fish.
- The amount of protein needed in a diet varies from person to person and, unless the product is making a “high in protein” claim or is for children under 4, you will not find a % DV on the label. As a general guide, adults are recommended to get between 0.5 and 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, per day.
Vitamins and Minerals
- The only vitamins and minerals a company is mandated to list on nutrition labels are vitamins A and C, and minerals calcium and iron. If a product claims it is high in a vitamin or mineral, it is also required by law to include that information on the label.
- Eating a diet that is high in these nutrients can help reduce your risk for some diseases and conditions. If your % DV for each vitamin and mineral add up to 100, you are getting the required amount.
Change is Good
There are new changes coming to nutrition labeling in the U.S. Companies are required to reassess their current labeling practices and adhere to these new guidelines by July 26, 2018.
More Prominent Calorie Counts and Serving Sizes
The number of calories, servings, and serving sizes are all required to be in larger, bolder font. This will make it easier for the consumer to make a quick judgment about the quality of food they are purchasing.
Realistic Serving Sizes
The amount people consume has changed over the years; however, serving sizes on nutrition labels have not. Thus, many serving sizes don’t reflect how much people are actually eating. Packaging will now be required to list realistic serving sizes that relate more to the modern diet. You will notice items that previously had servings sizes of half a cup will now be changed to 1 cup.
% DV of Added Sugar
This is a major shift for nutrition labels. In the past, manufacturers were not required to include a % DV for added sugar. This led to people overconsuming the sweet stuff with no regard for nutritional guidelines. For example, seeing “Added Sugar: 12g” isn’t nearly as shocking as 48% DV. This new regulation will force food manufacturers to reevaluate their health claims and ingredients, while giving consumers more information and control over their diet.
Inclusion of Vitamin D and Potassium, Eliminating A and C
In the 1990s, when nutrition labels were originally created, there was a need to ensure people were consuming adequate amounts of vitamin A and C. As our diets have evolved, we are no longer lacking these vitamins. Instead, we have become deficient in vitamin D and potassium.
Vitamin D is found in foods such as fish, eggs, cheese, mushrooms, and milk, to name a few. It helps strengthen your bones and can prevent osteoporosis in your older years. Vitamin D is also called the “sunshine vitamin,” and you can get healthy doses just by enjoying the great outdoors.
Potassium works to lower your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. Some foods that pack a serious potassium punch are bananas, squash, avocados, beans, fish, and dark leafy greens.
Now that you understand how to read a nutrition label, you can make healthier and more informed decisions about the food products you are buying. The next time you head out to the grocery store, don’t forget to pack your reading glasses!
Ashley is a former competitive swimmer, lifeguard, and recovering hummus addict. As an avid fitness hobbyist, Ashley will enthusiastically try anything once, from trapeze lessons to bouldering.