Making informed decisions regarding your health requires the ability to understand the nutrition behind our favorite foods and products, in this post I will highlight the various sections of a Nutrition Facts Label and explain how they relate to you.
I know that just looking at a nutrition label can be a headache especially when none of the information has a real meaning to you. Back before I started learning about nutrition, I would pay attention to nutrition labels only because I would hear people say that I was supposed to but to be quite honest I didn't really get what I was supposed to be getting from it. I would notice the serving sizes and sometimes laugh because who considers a candy bar to be for 3 servings? I would sometimes look at the vitamins and tell myself that I was making a good choice because I was at least getting something good from my chips. You may be experiencing the same issue and you may have even looked up how to read the nutrition label already but...it still didn't give you a good understanding and I totally get where you are coming from because it doesn't matter if you can read it and find the different spots on it; what matters is that you know what it means when it comes to your health. Here is a basic Nutrition Facts label from the FDA (Food and Drugs Administration):
(To learn more about the recent changes to the Nutrition Facts Label, click here.)
This is the first section that you see under the NUTRITION FACTS and it indicates how many servings the manufacturer expects to be in a package. The reason I use the word "expect" is because people don't always eat just one serving at a time and it is important to understand that the information listed on the label about the product may be regarding only 1/3 of the total package even if the entire amount is pretty small and can be eaten in one bite! Always pay attention to the serving size first! For example if you are watching your calories to lose weight and you pick up a muffin and it only has 200 calories and it fits into your allotted amount for the day and you scarf it down only to realize that the entire muffin was actually 5 servings and a total of 1000 calories, half your daily goal, then it will be very disheartening to see that you used up half of your food for the day on 1 muffin!
The serving size tells you the amount that each serving contains; it usually lists the imperial measurement and the metric one as well. Sometimes the serving size can seem unrealistically small and it requires you to do some math to figure out how much you actually eat. ( My husband can easily get a big bowl of cereal that fits about 8 servings) The FDA is actually currently taking steps to try and fix the issue of small serving sizes by making companies be more realistic with their serving sizes so that people can make sense of what they are actually eating. Noting the serving size also you more buying power because you can compare brands and see how much food you actually get. For example 2 brands of cereal may say they only have 5 net grams of carbs and are high in fiber but when you look at the back one brand's serving size is 1/4 cup and the other's is 1/2 cup; you get to eat a lot more if the serving size is bigger for the same amount of nutrients.
This section tells you the amount of total calories from each servings. Note that this information is for just 1 serving and not the entire package, although some companies choose to add the calories of the entire package next to it as well. Remember too that not all calories as created equal, while protein and carbohydrates account for 4 calories per gram, fats give you 9 calories per gram. So if you see two products that both have 100 calories, the makeup of their nutrition can be completely different. Understanding this can come in handy when you're looking at low-fat or low-sugar products. When a product boasts that it has lowered a certain ingredient, it is helpful to take a look and see if they increased another. Often fat free products have sugar added to them to makeup for the loss of flavor and while it may only be 100 calories, they may contain too much sugar for your health.
% Daily Value:
Note the bottom of the label has a side note next to the "*" symbol stating "*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contribute to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice." Essentially what this means is that all of those convenient looking percentages are really only convenient if your daily calorie needs are 2,000. If you happen to fit into my range, being a woman, short, and trying to lose weight, you only get 1200 ( 1200 calories, by the way, is the lowest range that is considered safe for any weight loss routine, going under this amount can be hazardous to your health even if you are small. ) and that means that these percentages are wayyyy off. For a 300 lb bodybuilder, these percentages will also be wayyyy off. It is important to understand your own specific caloric needs in order for this section to be helpful to you.
Total Fat & Types of Fat:
This section will tell you the total amount of fat in a package (in bold letters) and the amount of each of the types of fat in the package. There are several kinds that you may see noted like Saturated, Unsaturated, PolyUnsaturated, MonoUnsaturated, and Trans Fat. Saturated fat have been, for a very long time, regarded as less than optimum for your health and if you have any type of Cardiovascular Disease, this is a section that you need to notice. Typically Unsaturated fats are seen as healthier and it may be a good idea to notice if your packaged foods have them or not. Trans fats are on their way out but not completely since certain products are still allowed to contain them and some products naturally have trans fats in them so it is good to see if that is something that you are eating as Trans fats have been shown to be very bad for you health in general.
This section tells you how much cholesterol there is in your food. Generally people with heart diseases or with high cholesterol levels should be paying attention to this section because it can make a huge difference in their health. Healthy people can also pay attention since it doesn't hurt to do so. I would recommend talking to your doctor and having a blood test done to let you know what your levels are and if this is something that you should be highly concerned with.
This section is also akin to the cholesterol explanation. Some people with health problems like high blood pressure really need to pay attention to their sodium levels. It is helpful to learn what the healthy levels are for yourself so that you can see if certain foods have too much salt. Some foods may contain labels like salt-free or low-sodium but those labels have specific legal definitions and the levels of sodium in the actual food may still be too high or too low for your specific needs.
Total Carbs & Types of Carbohydrates:
Like with the Fat, the Carbohydrates section as makes the distinction between Total carbs and the types of carbs present in the food. You will typically see Dietary Fiber, Insoluble & Soluble Fiber, Total Sugars, and Added Sugars. Notice that the sections underneath the total don't necessarily have to add up to the total amount. This is because a food may contain simple carbs (sugar), complex carbs (starches), and fiber. Your body processes each of these differently and while there a lot of debates about the role that sugar plays in our diet, usually we want to stay away from too many added sugars. Getting a good amount of fiber is always a good idea unless you have a medical issue that requires you to cut down on your fiber. As always, this is a good conversation to have with your doctor.
This tells you how much protein there is. It should be noted that just because a product contains a lot of protein, it doesn't mean that it is good for you or that your body will use all of it. There are a ton of bogus claims surrounding protein (that's a few more blog posts worth of explaining) so try to focus on how much you need in your diet.
This section tells you the amount of micronutrients a food or product has in it. By law certain nutrients must be noted in order to help the consumer but the manufacturer can choose to list other ingredients that are present as well. If a company chooses to list a nutrient it has to by law contain that nutrient in the amount that is stated. (This rule only applies to Food and Drug products. Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and may not be tested to make sure their labels are factual, please look up the manufacturer and learn about their testing policies and report any suspicious labels.) In the recent past nutrition labels were required to note the amount of Vitamin A, C, Calcium, and Iron in the product because those were the nutrients that Americans tend to be low on but in 2016 this changed to Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium because these are the nutrients the many Americans are low on today. It is a good idea to learn about what amounts you need in your own diet and to talk to your doctor about getting tested to check your current levels.
You may notice other sections in your label. Some of these sections are required and some are not but companies still add them based on the product to make sure that consumers are aware. Sections like Ingredients, Allergens, Food Label Claims, and Expiration Dates are there to help you make informed decisions.
The ingredients list is required to list all the ingredients that are in the product by weight. So while a product may say low in sugar, it may still be very high in simple carbs but since the manufacturer used other types of sugars with different names (sugar is sugar to your body, even when it is a healthier version like coconut sugar or honey, it can still affect weight-loss), they technically are not lying. You can look in the ingredients section to see what the exact ingredients are and you can see if High Fructose Corn Syrup is still the first and biggest amount list. (Some people will try to tell you to stay away from long and complicated sounding, some very natural and typical ingredients have long complicated names and may not be harmful to your health while junk food that just has plain sugar, salt, and oil can be detrimental.) It's best to learn about the foods that you typically enjoy and make decisions based on what you do know for sure.
Allergen warnings are there to help people who have real allergies. Real allergens are required to be noted if they are an ingredient or if the product is made around those ingredients since the food can still be contaminated. These allergens would be things like dairy, eggs, soybeans, shellfish, peanuts, gluten, mustard, celery, sulphur-dioxide, sesame, tree nuts, molluscs, or lupins. This label does not indicate whether a food is healthy for you. While gluten free diets have been a trend for some time now, being gluten intolerant or cutting out gluten to lose weight is not the same as having Celiac Disease which is an allergy to gluten. These labels are vital if you have an allergy as it can save your life. If you don't have an allergy but suspect you have an intolerance they can also be helpful, although cutting certain ingredients out of your diet without a real need can actually be detrimental since foods with those ingredients may be your only source of other vital nutrients. Always talk to your doctor first before cutting out anything from your diet.
Food label claims can include things like Gluten Free, Low-Fat, or Organic. There are tons of labels and they typically each have a legal definition that must be proven and tested in order for a company to be allowed to use it. These labels can be very helpful for making decisions about your food choices although it i