Know Your Food – Learn How to Read Nutrition Labels

A health conscious person carefully reads through the nutrition label of a food package

Nutrition labels can sound like a technical or science-ey list. The reality is, it is very simple to understand. It is the key to understanding food nutrition facts and improving our everyday eating patterns.

The consumer markets and their marketing machinery have grown smarter and trickier in the 21st century. Likewise, we as consumers also have grown much more conscious, cautious, and informed.

These days, when we visit a department store and pick up any item, we tend to turn the packet over most likely to check the specifications more than just the price of the product.

If the product is food or drink, we now take the first look at the information on the label to know what it is made of, and how it will affect our bodies.

At times, we find it difficult to understand the nutrition labels. However, a nutrition label isn’t as difficult to understand as it seems. Getting a better idea of how to read nutrition labels can save us money and our health.

Common information found on the packaging of foods

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first mandated the printing of the Nutrition Facts Labels in 1990. This was to help consumers make informed, and healthy food choices more easily. Since then, it has undergone revisions. The last of those revisions [1]Food and Drug Administration: Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label were made in 2016 and enforceable by January 2020 or January 2021, depending on the company’s food sales.

So what do packages normally tell us about their contents?

Front of the package: health and nutrition claim

Be warned. This is the part that grabs our attention. This is also the part of a food’s packaging that is not monitored closely by the FDA.

Logos, labels, graphics, and lofty claims [2]HARVARD T.H. CHAN: The Nutrition Source often fill the front of the package. There are some minimum requirements to be met before printing claims such as “Low-fat”, “Low-sodium”, “High-fiber”, etc. But, there are ways in which companies can still mislead consumers with the information provided or withheld in this section.

Back/side of the package

The FDA oversees the information provided on this side of the food packaging. This is the side you want to look at and read thoroughly if you do not wish to waste your health and money on unhealthy foods. As per the rules, the back of a package must contain information about:

  • Ingredients
  • Nutrients table
  • Allergy information
  • Sell by/use-by dates

Understanding food nutrient labels

Let’s get down to the basic constituents of the food nutrient labels and what each section means:

Serving information

An important, but rarely noticed section of the nutrition table is the serving size. All serving sizes have been compulsorily standardized to make comparisons easier. They are usually in the form of weight ( ounces, liters), cups, or individual pieces(like single cookies).

Serving sizes are usually, deceitfully smaller than how much people usually consume. Remember to read the serving size the product is going by, and the number of those servings one pack contains.

For example, the nutrition label on a package of a frozen Tesco pepperoni pizza might apply to its standard serving size: ½ pizza. If you wharf down the whole pizza in one go, you are consuming twice the calories listed on the label. 726 calories are bad enough without you eating 1,452 calories, simply because you didn’t read your nutrition label right.

Calories

All packages are supposed to mention the exact calories the food item contains. Check this number carefully. Nutrition labels list calories per serving.
Read the serving size and then multiply it with the number of servings you will have. If you do the math right, you can reduce your chances of consuming more calories than you planned to.

Nutrients

Fats, carbs, dietary fiber, sugars, sodium, and other vitamins and minerals are mentioned in this section. Try to choose foods that have more fiber, vitamins, and minerals per serving. Be wary of foods that contain more carbs, saturated fats, sugars (both natural and added), or sodium.

Americans are generally deficient in vitamin D. Study [3]Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Learn How the Nutrition Facts Label Can Help You Improve Your Health suggests to consume foods that have vitamin D listed on their nutrition labels.

You may not find references to vitamins A and C, since the FDA doesn’t mandate listing them on labels any more. Try to consume foods that fulfill anything between 10-20% of your protein and vitamin requirements with every serving.

Stick to foods that provide at least 5 grams of fiber in a serving.

Be extra careful when you read the fats and sugars sections. There are many different forms of sugar, most of which can be bad beyond a certain amount. Keeping sugar consumption to less than 5gms per serving is a good rule to observe.

While reading the section on total fats, remember that all fats aren’t equally bad. Keep an eye out for words like “hydrogenated”, “partially-hydrogenated”, or “saturated” and “cholesterol levels”. They spell choke-in-your-arteries danger.

Processed foods increase our intake of sodium. To keep that under check, remember a few numbers. If you are healthy, your sodium intake should be within 2300 mg per day. If you have health conditions like high blood pressure, you might want to keep your intake within 1500 mg.

%Daily Value(DV)

You will have noticed that apart from the nutrition facts displayed in grams, there is a section that displays percentage numbers. You know it is called % Daily value. But what does it signify and how is it different from the nutrition facts expressed in grams?

To understand %DV, you have to know your everyday calorie requirements and the recommended calorie requirements for average Americans, as per suggested guidelines [4]Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and Online Materials. DV refers to the amount of caloric or nutritional requirement fulfilled per serving.

For example, one serving of pretzels provides 17% of the daily value. The daily allowance of sodium for a healthy person is 2300 gms. After consuming one serving of pretzels, a person can safely consume only 1909 gms of sodium for the rest of the day.

To put %DV to best use, compare the values of specific nutrients in the same products of different companies. Aim to have 5% or less DV of saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium. Try to consume foods that provide 20% or more of fiber, calcium, and vitamin D.

Understanding ingredients list

Ingredients used in the manufacture of any food are listed in descending order of weight. This means that the ingredients used in the largest amounts are mentioned first. The ingredients used in smaller amounts go at the end of the list.

The ingredients list of a bottle of tomato ketchup will naturally begin with tomato paste. The spices and salt will come later. Coloring agents and preservatives will be at the very end of the ingredients list.

This is a very important section to pay attention to if you have allergies or health conditions. You can decide whether or not to buy food items based on the ingredients you require to increase or decrease the intake of.

How to read nutrition labels to maintain healthy eating patterns

  • Keep a hawk-eyed focus on the serving sizes and the number of servings per package. Single servings on packages almost never correspond to the common eating proportions. Be especially careful when consuming processed foods that people normally consume higher amounts of.
  • Compare the percentage values of similar foods and choose the ones with more of the good nutrients.
  • Remember to differentiate between naturally occurring sugars and added sugar. Do not get fooled by alternative names of sugars.
  • No added sugar? Low fat? Look again and search for what unhealthy substitute has been used to reduce fat or sugar in your food.
  • Revisit the nutrition facts label and ingredients list if a product says whole grain. Are those whole grains the first three in the list of ingredients? If not, it means that the “whole-grain” is used in very little quantity. Its presence may be as good as useless for your health. Also, does the nutrition label show considerable fiber? If not, the multi-grains are all refined and processed. Don’t waste your money on that.
  • Do not fall for words like natural or organic. Again, if the natural or organic ingredients are not the primary ingredient, or if they are heavily processed, this amounts to nothing.
  • Watch out for unhealthy additives in single ingredient packages like honey, wheat flour, and so on. The nutrition labels can be a key to understanding whether they have added ingredients that can make them unhealthy for you.
  • Lastly, reduce the consumption of all processed foods. You do not need to check for nutrition labels on the scales of a fish or the stalks of fresh spinach. Nature is mostly low fat, low sodium, low sugar, and unprocessed.

References

References
1 Food and Drug Administration: Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label
2 HARVARD T.H. CHAN: The Nutrition Source
3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Learn How the Nutrition Facts Label Can Help You Improve Your Health
4 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and Online Materials

Similar Posts