When grocery shopping for nutritious foods, it’s essential to understand how to identify high-quality, healthy options. But the buzzwords and health claims on food packaging can often be misleading and hyperbolic, causing confusion and uncertainty. To cut through the noise, shift your gaze toward the Nutrition Facts label for accurate and approved information!
If you’re unsure how to read a Nutrition Facts label properly, you’re in luck! Just follow this simple guide to learn how to quickly and easily understand the most important terms and how they apply to you.
The Serving Size section at the top of Nutrition Facts labels is the most critical, so be sure to review it first. The Serving Size indicates the number of ounces, grams or milliliters considered to be one single serving. Serving Sizes are standardized to help nutrition comparison among similar products.
Keep in mind that all information on the label is based on the single Serving Size provided. For example, if the Serving Size for a soda is 8 fluid ounces, but you drink the entire 16 ounces in the bottle, you’re actually drinking two servings worth of every nutrient listed. From calories and macronutrients to vitamins and minerals, everything would be doubled.
Calories are a measurement of the energy the body receives from a single serving of any food or beverage. Since food is our primary energy source, accurately assessing how many calories you consume is essential to a well-balanced diet.
Remember, the number of servings you eat also determines the number of Calories you consume. As such, a close eye and some basic arithmetic are both needed for some of the trickier food packages. For instance, if a small potato chip bag contains 200 Calories per serving, but has 1.5 servings per bag, the entire bag actually contains 300 total Calories.
Even if you’re comfortable reading the Calories section on Nutrition Facts labels, you should take note of some recent changes. In 2018, the FDA removed “Calories from Fat” from this section, as the type of fat (listed under Total Fat) has been shown to affect health much more than the Calories coming from Fat.
Percent Daily Value
The % Daily Value (%DV) shows the percentage of each nutrient in a serving based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. For example, if the Nutrition Facts labels says something contains 15% Vitamin B, it means that one serving has 15% of the daily recommended Vitamin B for a person following a 2000 calorie per day diet. Even if your diet is more or less than 2,000 calories, the %DV can help you quickly understand if foods are high or low in specific nutrients.
If you’re looking to consume more of a specific nutrient, a %DV greater than 20% is considered high. So, if you need extra calcium, look for foods with 22% calcium listed in the %DV section! If you’re looking to consume less of a nutrient, look for foods with a %DV below 5%.
Fat is an important source of energy that carries fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., vitamin A) throughout the body. Total Fat shows the cumulative grams of Fat per serving and is further broken down into Saturated Fat and Trans Fat.
While the American Heart Association recommends restricting artificial trans fatty acids, Trans Fats can still be tricky to navigate. For example, products with less than 0.5 grams of Trans Fat per serving can state that they have “0 grams of Trans Fats.” So, if you consume multiple servings of foods with small, unlisted amounts, Trans Fats can quickly add up! As a solution, scan the Ingredients List for “partially hydrogenated oils,” as this will identify when Trans Fats are present under the 0.5-gram threshold.
There are many misconceptions when it comes to high-cholesterol numbers and the strategies for lowering them. While dietary guidelines once recommended consuming less than 300mg of Cholesterol per day, this has since changed. Today, Nutrition Facts labels no longer give a specific recommendation.
Cholesterol is a necessary component for numerous bodily functions, including hormone synthesis and the creation of bile for fat digestion. However, too much Cholesterol may be detrimental to your health, and excess consumption may contribute to heart problems.
Sodium (listed in milligrams) is necessary for keeping proper body fluid balance. The total Sodium shown on Nutrition Facts labels includes the Sodium from salt, plus Sodium from naturally occurring ingredients.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of Sodium (about 1 tsp of salt) per day. To stay under that number, be mindful of the Sodium in packaged food, and balance those choices with fresh fruit and vegetables.
Dietary Fiber is listed under Total Carbohydrates, and a great way to jump-start healthy eating is to increase your intake. Fiber is an essential part of a healthy diet with multiple health benefits, including lowering the rate at which sugar is absorbed into the blood. Fiber also keeps your body regulated, which helps the intestines work faster, and cleans the colon.
While daily intake recommendations can differ based on age and gender, consuming 20 grams of Fiber per day is a great starting point! Look for high-fiber products containing at least 5 grams of Fiber or more per serving.
Sugars are found under Total Carbohydrates and can be naturally occurring or added as an ingredient. Ingredients, such as fruit and milk, contain naturally occurring Sugars.
Old Nutrition Fact labels would only show Total Carbohydrates and Sugars, with no definitive way to see Added Sugars. However, the FDA recently mandated that all labels show Added Sugars as a subcategory. As such, the new label clearly breaks this number down and provides a %DV.
At the very bottom of the Nutrition Facts label, you might notice a big difference between the old and new labels. The old label has a clunky chart with multiple calorie listings. The new label is simplified and straight to the point, with several new adjustments that make it easier to read!
For example, if you ever forget what the %DVs are based on, venture down to the bottom footnote where it clarifies, “The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”