How to Read Nutrition Labels
Healthy eating starts with knowing the facts about what you are putting in your mouth. Reading nutrition labels can help you make wise food choices; knowing how to read the "Nutrition Facts" on a food label and not relying on phrases like “healthy” or “low-fat” is a key step. Being in better control of your eating habits helps you to feel in better control of other aspects of your life. Food is not the enemy, eating should be an adventure and not an ordeal. Remember these tips when packing lunch for yourself or for your children as we approach a new school year.
Serving Size: The first place to start when you look at the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. This number is at the top for a reason. Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams.
The size of the serving on the food package influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. Total calories are calculated per serving, as are total calories from fat. Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package. Then ask yourself, "How many servings am I consuming"? (e.g., 1/2 serving, 1 serving, or more) It’s important to compare the serving size listed on the container to the amount of that food that you should be eating. Be sure to look at the servings per container. A bag of potato chips might say it has 150 calories per serving, but the entire bag might be three servings, or 450 calories.
Calories: Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food. Many Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for a number of nutrients. The calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight (i.e., gain, lose, or maintain.) The number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you actually eat (your portion amount). Eating too many calories per day is linked to overweight and obesity.
Calories From Fat: These are the calories that come directly from the fat in the food you are eating. Example: if you are eating something with 100 calories and it says 40 calories from fat, then 40% of those calories are coming from the fat in the product. A healthy diet should only have 10-30% of your daily calories coming from fat.
Percent Daily Value: A healthy person should consume a certain amount of fats, carbohydrates (especially fiber), protein, and vitamins and minerals each day. Certain ingredients, such as saturated fats and trans fats, are considered unhealthy and should only be eaten in very small amounts. The nutrition label provides a list of percentages (called the Percent Daily Value) that compares how much of a certain nutrient one serving of food contains to how much of that nutrient you should consume daily.
One serving of food with 5% or less of the daily value is considered low. One serving of a food with 20% or more of the daily value is considered high.
The Percent Daily Value is based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories. You will need to adjust the percentages if you eat more or less than 2,000 calories per day.
Fat: More important than total fat are the numbers for saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. You want to see that the food contains relatively little saturated fat and trans fat, and relatively more polyunsaturated (lowers total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Omega 3 fatty acids belong to this group of fat) and monounsaturated (lowers total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol while increasing the HDL). Keep in mind that "fat-free" doesn't equal "calorie-free." Many fat-free and low-fat foods have added sugar.
Ingredients that you should limit in your diet:
Saturated Fat. Saturated fat can increase your risk of heart disease and high cholesterol. The average adult should consume no more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day.
Trans Fat. Trans fat also increases your risk of heart disease. Ideally, you should get 0 grams of trans fat per day. When you read a nutrition label remember that companies are allowed to list the amount of trans fat as “0 grams” if it contains less than .5 gram of trans fat per serving. This means that your food can contain some trans fat even if the nutrition label says “0 grams” per serving! Always check the ingredient list for trans fat, which may be listed as “hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” Trans fat is usually found in commercially prepared baked goods, fried foods, snack foods and margarine.
Cholesterol: This is a fat-like chemical that's an essential component of cell membranes, a covering for nerve-cell fibers, and a building block of hormones. Adults are advised to limit their daily intake to 300 milligrams. Too much can elevate your blood cholesterol, raising your heart-disease risk.
Sodium: The recommended daily limit for an average adult is 2,300 milligrams; too much sodium can cause high blood pressure. By the USDA's reckoning, a food is low in sodium if it contains no more than 140 milligrams.
Total Carbohydrate: This number represents the total of all the different types of carbohydrates you consume from eating one serving of the food. This large category includes everything from whole grains (healthy carbs) to sugar and other refined carbs (unhealthy ones). It's most helpful to look at the sugar and fiber numbers.
Dietary Fiber: The average adult should eat between 21 and 35 grams of fiber daily, but most don't reach that level. When buying bread or cereal, look for a brand with 3 grams or more per serving. Some labels describe whether the fiber is soluble or insoluble. Both are important. Soluble fiber, found in oatmeal, barley, and dried beans, can help lower cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber, found in whole grains and fruit and vegetable skins, protects against bowel disorders and may help digestion.
Sugars: These simple carbohydrates include glucose, dextrose, fructose, and galactose, all of which provide little nutritional value. Sugar shows up in surprising places, like crackers, "healthy" cereals, and salad dressings. It's often added to foods that need a flavor boost (like low-fat products).
Protein: In general, 0.45 gram of protein daily per pound of body weight. Example: 68 grams for a 150-pound person is plenty of protein.
Vitamins and Minerals: This list includes the vitamins and minerals found in the food naturally, along with any added to it, and the percentage of daily value for each―again, calculated for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. The footnote (not found on all nutrition labels) provides a table listing the total daily grams of fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, and fiber that the USDA recommends in a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet.
Ingredients: The product's ingredients must be listed in order of quantity, so the major ones come first. When checking a label on bread, for instance, you want to see that the first ingredient is whole wheat, oats, or some other grain. (Note that "whole wheat" means "whole grain," but not all brown-colored and "multigrain" breads are made of whole grain.)