Nutrition labels: What to know to eat right

Photo: Nutrition Label

Reading and understanding nutrition labels is a key part of becoming a health-savvy shopper. The nutrition facts panel, found on most packaged foods can tell you things like how much fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamin C a food contains, it can help you compare fat and calorie counts between products, and it can help you identify which foods are low in sodium, carbohydrates, or trans-fat. It’s also where you will find specific ingredients and any common allergens. Read on to see how a quick glance at the nutrition facts can help you to shop more wisely.

  • Serving size: When reading a nutrition label, start from the top – that’s where you will find the serving size and the number of servings per container. Don’t assume that one frozen dinner box contains only one serving, and don’t assume that your bowl is only going to hold one cup of cereal. Too often the serving size listed is much less than we actually end up consuming. Serving size therefore, is an important thing to begin regulating if you are trying to manage your weight.
  • Daily Values: Percent Daily Values (%DV) are nutrient levels for a person eating an average of 2,000 calories a day. For example, the Daily Value for fat, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, is 65 grams (g). A food that has 13 g of fat per serving would state on the label that the "Percent Daily Value" for fat is 20 percent.1 Your average daily intake of calories may be more or less than 2,000, but %DV can still be used as a guide.
    • When comparing daily values, 5% is considered low, while 20% is considered high. In general, we should look for foods that are low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sugar, and high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
  • Product Claims: What does it mean when a product is advertised as “Low Calorie” or “High Fiber?” The FDA has strict guidelines for allowing products to use claims like these on their packages. Following are the most common phrases you’ll find:2
    • Low calorie — Less than 40 calories per serving.
    • Low cholesterol — Less than 20 mg of cholesterol and 2 gm or less of saturated fat per serving.
    • Reduced — 25% less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product.
    • Good source of — Provides at least 10% of the DV of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.
    • Calorie free — Less than 5 calories per serving.
    • Fat free / sugar free — Less than 1⁄2 gram of fat or sugar per serving.
    • Low sodium — Less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
    • High in — Provides 20% or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving.
    • High fiber — 5 or more grams of fiber per serving.
      • Although the FDA does not currently have any labeling standards for vegetarian or vegan foods (only that they must be “truthful and not misleading”), there are some companies who will label their products as such, which can be very helpful for vegetarians.3 However, because of the lack of regulation and standards, you might not always be able to trust a “vegetarian” label. For this reason, it’s always best to review all the ingredients and to shop at Down to Earth, which is all-vegetarian.
  • Ingredients: Perhaps the most important part of the label, the ingredients list, should be your first indicator of whether a food is really worth putting in your body or not. A product that seems like a good choice when the nutrients and %DV numbers are examined can be hiding all sorts of undesirable ingredients like artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors. This is especially relevant if you are trying to lose weight by watching your fat and calories. Many low fat and low calorie products are loaded with unhealthy additives. Don’t be deceived by numbers–know what is actually going in to your body.

    It’s always a good idea to stick to foods that are as natural as possible. Even if you are splurging on what might be considered a “junk food,” try to stick to those with better ingredients. For example, two bags of popcorn might have the same amount of fat per serving, but one is made with olive oil and the other with partially hydrogenated oil. Save your heart and go for the one with olive oil. Or two juices might have the same amount of sugar but one is 100% juice and the other has added high-fructose corn syrup. Pick the 100% juice option.

    Finally, if you have allergies, the nutrition label is the first thing to check. Manufacturers are required to clearly state if food products contain any ingredients that contain protein derived from the eight major allergenic foods. These foods are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. Many times, allergens will be highlighted on the label so they stand out on the ingredients list.

The more you become familiar with nutrition labels, the easier it will be to quickly discern the healthy from the not-so-healthy. Remember too, that packaged and processed foods should be just a small part of your diet and that foods without labels, namely vegetables and fruits, should be the bulk of your plate.

  1. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Shop Smart — Get the Facts on Food Labels." 2012. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Electronic Document. 6 March 2012.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Food Consulting Company. FAQ for FDA regulations on food labels. 2012. 7 March 2012.