Reading Food Labels can be tricky. On top of that, food labeling regulations are complex, making it harder for people to understand them and what is truly in their food choices. This article is a crash course on how to read food labels so that you can more informed decisions on what you are buying and eating.
Servings per Container vs. Serving Size
Two key features to look at first on a nutrition label are Servings per Container and Serving Size. The information presented on the nutrition facts label is for the specified serving size of the product, not the entire container, unless explicitly stated as such. Servings per container identifies how many servings of the product are being provided in the package based on the specified serving size. So, if a nutrition label states four servings per container and an individual chooses to consume the entire container, then the information on the nutrition facts label must be multiplied by four to get an accurate representation of what was consumed. The serving size listed on the nutrition facts label is based on the amount of food that individuals are typically thought to eat during one sitting. It is not a recommended or suggested serving size of the product. Serving size on the nutrition facts label is for information purposes only; it is not necessarily a recommendation of what an individual should be eating. Portion Size should depend on several factors such as your calorie needs or activity level and on the type of meal being consumed.
Percent Daily Value
The nutrition facts label includes a column displaying the Percent Daily Value for the listed nutrients. The Percent Daily Value indicates how much one serving of the food item contributes toward the recommended daily value for that nutrient (fat, carbohydrates, vitamin D, etc.) based on a 2000-calorie diet. For example: If an individual’s needs are 2000 calories per day, one serving of the food product in the picture would prove 8 grams of fat, which represents 10% of their daily needs for fat. However, if an individual’s calorie needs are less than 2000 calories, one serving of the product would provide more than 10% of their daily needs for fat because their daily needs for fat are lower than those of a 2000-calorie diet.
Percent daily values are, essentially, tools to indicate if a product is particularly high or low in a listed nutrient. They allow a person to figure out if the product is a good source of any listed nutrients. Generally, a percent daily value of 5 or less means that the product is low in that particular nutrient and a value of 20 or more means that it is high in that nutrient. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recommends that consumers generally choose products that provide 5% or less of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and 20% or more for fiber, vitamins, and minerals (AND, 2017). There are no established recommendations for total sugar to eat in a day; hence, no daily value or percent daily value for total sugar. Percent daily values are provided for added sugar as current guidelines recommend limiting added sugar to no more than 10% of daily calories.
Interpreting Calories and Macronutrients
After servings per container and serving size, consumers should look at the total calories provided and the macronutrient composition of the product, which includes the total amount of fat, carbohydrates, and grams of protein provided in a serving. Information provided for total calories and each of the listed nutrients is for one serving of the product unless otherwise specified. When looking at a nutrition facts label, there are several questions that should be considered when determining if a food is a good choice or not. Consider the following questions each time you look at a label:
· Total Calories per Serving – Do these appear excessively high? How many servings would an individual typically eat? Does this support nutritional goals?
· Total Carbohydrate per Serving – Is this product high or low in carbohydrates? How many servings would a person typically eat?
· Fiber – How many grams of fiber are in a serving? Is this product high or low in fiber?
· Total and Added Sugars – How many grams of sugar and added sugar are in the product? Is this product high or low in added sugar? How does this align with nutritional goals?
· Protein – How many grams of protein are in one serving of the product? How would this product contribute to protein requirements?
· Total Fat and Saturated Fat per Serving – Does this support nutritional goals? Are any other types of fat listed (e.g., trans fat)? Does this product seem high in fat?
Interpreting Total Sugars and Added Sugars
The new nutrition facts label lists both Total Sugars and the amount of Added Sugar provided in a product. Added sugars are those that have been added to the product in the form of sucrose (table sugar), corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, or other derivatives. Foods such as fruit contain natural sugar in the form of lactose and fructose; these are naturally present in the food and have not been added to the product. Added sugars may be found in many surprising products. For example, bread, pasta sauce, salsa, flavored yogurt, and salad dressing can all contain some form of added sugar. Percent daily values are provided for added sugar as current guidelines recommend limiting added sugar to no more than 10% of daily calories.
The main micronutrients required on the nutrition facts label include sodium, potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamin D. If the food has been fortified with any nutrients, or if the food product makes a claim about any nutrients, then they are required to be listed on the nutrition facts label.
· Sodium: Packaged and processed food products often contain large amounts of sodium because it serves as both a preservative and a flavor enhancer. Most individuals in the United States already consume large amounts of sodium and excess intake can exacerbate high blood pressure. Paying attention to the sodium content in a food can, help you make better purchasing choices and monitor how much of a mineral you are consuming.
· Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron and Potassium: These four micronutrients are required to be listed on the nutrition label as they are the ones for which most U.S. adults fail to consume the recommended amounts. (FDA, 2018).
Interpreting Ingredients List
The ingredient list may perhaps be one of the most important components of a nutrition label; however, it is often also the least used. Food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients in a packaged food product in decreasing order of prevalence, which means that the first ingredient listed is present in the largest amount.Manufacturers are also required to identify common allergens that are in or that may have contaminated the ingredients in the product (FDA, 2013).
These features make the ingredient list a particularly important tool for evaluating the nutritional value and the contribution of a particular food or food product in an individual’s diet. Without even looking at the nutrition facts panel, the ingredients list can indicate if a product is a whole-food product, a minimally processed product, or one that is highly refined and comprised of multiple ingredients, additives, and preservatives. The following are some questions to ask when looking at the ingredients list:
· What is the primary ingredient in this product?
· Which item is listed first?
· Does this correspond with what the product claims to be providing?
· Try to select foods with five or less ingredients (not including added vitamins and minerals) and ingredients you may recognize.
Thousands of new products come out every year, many trying to cash in on the latest diet craze. This makes it incredibly hard to regulate. Recently the Florida FDA evaluated 67 diet products and found all 67 were inaccurately labeled; they contained more sugar, for example, than their labels stated. Therefore, it’s so important to understand the Food Labeling system so you can make informed decisions to the best of your ability. During your first few trips to the market, give yourself extra time to evaluate products. You’ll soon speed up and understand what you are looking for in the foods you choose the purchase!