If you were to ask the experts how a food fits into a balanced eating plan and how nutrient-dense it is, you will probably be told “read the label!” This may sound simple, but it’s definitely not easy- especially since nutrition labels have undergone a recent makeover.
Unfortunately, nutrition labels/ingredient lists are a complicated display of numbers and confusing terms. Therefore, if you’re not sure what you are looking for, it’s hard to make sense of them. In fact, it’s a lot like trying to decipher your college biology textbook.
However, it really doesn’t have to be this way. Even though they are packed with a lot of information, there are really only a few things on a nutrition label that can help you determine if a food is nutritional or not. In this article, we will explore those components.
Common Terms Found on Nutrition Labels
The FDA, or Food and Drug Administration, regulates the words that are used on food labels. Here are a few that you should look for:
- Calorie-free: under 5 calories/serving
- Low calorie: no more than 40 calories/serving
- Reduced calorie/reduced fat: 25%+ less calories/fat than original
- Fat-free: under 0.5 grams of fat/serving
- Low fat: no more than 3 grams of fat/serving
- Low sodium: no more than 140 milligrams of sodium/serving
- Very low sodium: no more than 25 milligrams of sodium/serving
- Low cholesterol: no more than 20 milligrams of cholesterol/serving
- Sugar-free: no more than 0.5 grams of sugar/serving
- High fiber: 20%+ of RDA of fiber/serving
Important Information on Nutrition Labels
Below, we’re going to explore 10 different areas found on nutrition labels that you need to pay attention to.
This is where you begin. Before you rip open that box of cereal or bag of chips, it’s important to know how many servings come in the package. This will help you figure out how many calories and other nutrients you get per serving.
Multi-serving packages are a bit tricky. You can take that family size bag of potato chips and sit down in front of the TV to binge-watch your favorite show and very easily consume several servings before you know it.
Most of the time, serving sizes are measured in standard units, such as cups. If you measure out a serving before you settle down in front of your TV, you’ll be more aware of what you are eating.
If you’re like most people, you check the big, bold caloric number first- and sometimes, it may be the only one you look at. While this number is very important, where the calories come from is more important.
When you pay attention, you may find that your healthy snack bar has just as many calories as a candy bar. However, the sugar content is much lower, the fats are healthy, and it also provides fiber and protein.
In addition, its important to pay attention to serving size. For example, if the label shows that there are 150 calories, and you consume a 4-serving container, you are probably consuming more calories than you planned to.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you are tracking your calories, you need to pay attention to snacks, as well as your daily meals. This can cause your caloric consumption to skyrocket. Experts recommend that your snack contain under 200 calories per serving.
However, that being said, make sure that you avoid becoming obsessive about counting calories, as this could lead to disordered eating. Instead, take the time to learn about mindful eating, which focuses on paying attention to what your body needs and fullness cues, as well as learning to savor what you eat.
Percent Daily Value
You should also pay attention to this number because it lets you know how much of your total daily allotment of that particular nutrient is provided in one serving. Therefore, if one serving of nuts contains 20% of your daily fat allowance, this can help you determine how much more fat your body needs for the day.
As a general rule:
- 5% or less is low and is a good amount for things you don’t want a lot of, such as sodium, sugars, trans fat, cholesterol, and saturated fat.
- 20% or more is high and is ideal for nutrients you do want, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
When you are looking at a nutrition label, you will see total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. your focus should be on the numbers next to saturated fat and trans fat.
Saturated fat increases your risk of heart disease when you consume too much and is found in burgers, hot dogs, and whole milk. This is why the American Heart Association says that you should get no more than 5 to 6% of your daily calories in the form of saturated fat.
Trans fat is added to processed, packaged foods such as cookies and crackers. It is an artificial fat that is made when vegetable oil is solidified by adding hydrogen to it. This is what makes snack foods yummy and makes them last longer. However, it also increases your LDL cholesterol, which is the “bad” cholesterol.
There is no amount of trans fat that is acceptable. In fact, the FDA has banned it- but it’s important to note that legally, foods can contain up to 0.5 grams per serving and still be considered “trans fat-free”. You’ll want to check the ingredient list for words such as “partially hydrogenated oil” and avoid those foods as much as possible.
Cholesterol is a sticky, fatty substance that is found in foods such as meat, butter, egg yolks, whole milk, and shellfish. While it’s true that you do need some cholesterol to facilitate the production of hormones and vitamin D, too much can stick to the walls of your arteries, increasing your risk of heart disease. This is why you want to make sure to choose foods that are low in cholesterol when reading nutrition labels.
Foods like whole eggs, which are also quality sources of other nutrients, is a great way to consume cholesterol in beneficial ways.
Unless you are an athlete doing a lot of sweating, you should not get more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, or about a teaspoon, daily- which doesn’t sound like a lot. If you get too enthusiastic with the salt shaker, it can have some negative effects on your blood pressure.
Unfortunately, most people get more salt than needed, primarily due to the fact that we consume so many packaged, processed foods such as frozen pizza, jarred pasta sauce, pretzels, and more.
You can keep your sodium levels under control by checking the nutrition label to be sure that snack foods contain under 300 milligrams of sodium and meals contain less than 700 milligrams per serving.
There are three types of carbohydrates listed on a food label: sugar, starch, and fiber. It’s important to note that the first two increase your blood sugar, while the last one does not. If your medical provider recommends that you count refined carbs, you’ll want to use the total grams. Most people should be consuming a decent amount of complex carbs and whole grains, so don’t start a low-carb diet without talking to your medical provider or a registered dietitian.
Ideally, your carbohydrate consumption should be approximately 50% of your total calories. This means if you’re consuming 2,000 calories/day, about 250 grams of that should be carbs.
Of course, it’s important to understand that your activity levels are involved in determining what your body needs- but in the end, it’s about balance and quality when it comes to your choices. Not all carbs are the same but eliminating them could have detrimental effects.
Fiber slows down digestion, keeping you fuller for longer and helping you avoid spikes in blood sugar. This means you’re less likely to give in to cravings later on. When it comes to fiber, more is usually better. According to the American Heart Association, you should be getting at least 25 grams of fiber daily. However, you’ll want to consult with your medical provider on your specific needs.
Ideally, you need 4 grams or more per serving for grains such as mac and cheese or whole wheat pasta. For bread and packaged snacks, you need 3 grams or more per serving.
In general, you want less added sugar, which is what manufacturers add to products to make them sweeter. A recent revamp of nutritional labels have made it much easier to determine the source of sugar in your food. The new labels show total sugar, added sugar, and also the percent daily value of added sugar per serving.
Natural sugar is present in foods such as milk (in the form of lactose) and fruit (in the form of fructose). There are many names for added sugars, the most common being high fructose corn syrup and other terms that end with “ose”, such as dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, and sucrose.
Other added sugar sources, such as maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, sucanat, coconut sugar, and molasses count as well. It doesn’t matter where the sugar comes from, all added sugars affect your body like regular sugar. Too much will increase your risk for diabetes and obesity.
When it comes to artificial sweeteners, if they are calorie-free, they will not be included in the total grams of sugar.
While it’s true that it’s probably unrealistic to find a cereal or snack bar with 0 grams of sugar, you can look for products that contain as little added sugar as possible. Your goal should be to look for foods that have less sugar than fiber. Also, try to make sure that no more than 10% of your daily calories come from sugar.
Protein is involved in nearly all of your bodily processes and is made up of amino acids. It is needed for cell repair, growth, energy, and more.
If you’re like most Americans, you’re probably already getting enough protein in your diet from foods like poultry, fish, meat, seeds, beans, and nuts.
It is important to understand that, when it comes to protein, everyone’s needs are different. In general, bodybuilders need more than the average person. You may not realize it, but there is a such thing as too much.
While it’s true that dietitians haven’t really given a required daily amount in general, you’ll want to choose snacks that have 5 to 10 grams of protein to keep you satiated.
While most of us would strive to eat healthy, it can get quite complicated. However, the nutrition label can help you determine which products will give you the nutrition you need.
The truth is that eating right is all about the numbers. You want to go high with nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. On the other hand, you want to go low with things like sugar, fat, and sodium. If you still have questions, you’ll want to consult with your medical provider or a dietitian.