The Nutrition Facts label provides valuable health information about processed foods. Learn how to confidently read and understand the label, which will make healthy eating decisions easier.
Last week, I wrote about the changes to the Nutrition Facts label, and why they are important. Now that we know all about the updated label, it’s time to put that information into practice. The Nutrition Facts label provides a lot of information about a food, and understanding how to read it can help you make informed eating decisions.
Understanding the Nutrition Facts label
1. Serving Size
When reading a Nutrition Facts label, start from the top and work your way down. The first section you’ll look at is the serving size information. The serving size tells you what constitutes 1 serving of that food. It also tells you how many servings are in the whole container, where it says “servings per container”.
All the information that follows is the nutrition information for a single serving size. So, if you were interested in the nutrition information for the entire package, multiply the information by the number of servings per container. For example, in the above label:
There are 1840 calories in the whole container (230 calories per serving x 8 servings per container).
The next section displays the number of calories in each serving of food. Calories measure the amount of energy contained in that food. Calories come from the macronutrients – carbohydrate, fat, or protein. Most packaged foods’ calorie content comes from a combination of the three macronutrients.
Carbohydrates and protein contain 4 calories per gram, and fat contains 9 calories per gram. This is how calorie content is calculated. Note that in this example, there are 37 grams of carbohydrate, 3 grams of protein, and 9 grams of fat. Using the sample label:
(37 g carbs x 4 kcal/g) + (3 g protein x 4 kcal/g) + (8 g fat x 9 kcal/g) = 232 calories, rounded to 230 calories.
3. Understanding Daily Values
The % Daily Value (%DV) tells you how much of each nutrient contributes to your needs or limits in a total daily diet. The %DV is in reference to one serving of food.
It is important to note the Daily Value is based on the recommendation of 2000 calories per day, which may be fore or less than your individual needs. Using the sample label as an example, a serving of this food contributes 7% of the recommended amount of sodium per day. When you do the math, this makes sense:
100% / 7% DV = 14
14 x 160 mg sodium = 2285 mg sodium. 2300 mg is the recommended upper limit for sodium intake in a day.
Tips for using %DV
A serving of food is LOW in a certain nutrient if it provides less than or equal to 5% of the daily value.
A serving of food is HIGH in a nutrient if it provides 20% or more of the daily value.
4. Nutrients to Limit
The third section provides information about individual nutrients in the foods – both macro- and micronutrients. Here, you will find details about nutrients to limit in your diet, because high intake of these nutrients is linked to increased risk of chronic disease. The nutrients you want to limit include saturated and trans-fats, sodium, and added sugar.
Artificial trans-fats are banned from foods in the US, but many processed foods contain high amounts of saturated fat. If a serving provides 5% or less of the daily value, it’s considered low in saturated fat. Try to choose foods with 1-2 grams of saturated fat per serving.
High sodium intake is linked to increased risk of heart disease, and can increase blood pressure. Current dietary guidelines recommend not exceeding 2300 mg of sodium per day, but consider less to be more beneficial. The American Heart Association recommends sticking to no more than 1500 mg of sodium per day. Note that if a food package is labeled “low sodium”, it has 140 mg or less per serving.
As I mentioned in my previous post, food companies must include added sugar content in the Nutrition Facts label. Current dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 10% of total calories from added sugar each day. That comes out to no more than 50 grams of added sugar per day for a 2000 calorie diet.
5. Beneficial Nutrients
The Nutrition Facts label also provides information about nutrients to eat more of each day. In general, the more the better when it comes to fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Micronutrients to pay particular attention to are calcium, iron, vitamin D, and potassium.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium, iron, and vitamin D are not found naturally in a lot of food sources, but many foods may be fortified with them. Calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health. They work together to protect and strengthen bones, so it’s important you have adequate levels of both. This is especially important for children and adolescents, because our bones stop growing around age 25. After that, it’s important to get enough calcium and vitamin D to maintain our bone health.
Iron is naturally occurring in more foods than vitamin D and calcium, including animal protein, beans, and spinach. It’s an important part of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all our organs and tissues. Iron in animal foods is more readily absorbed than iron found in plant foods. So, if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you may need to consume more iron daily so your body absorbs enough. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your iron levels.
Potassium is newly included on the nutrition label, because many Americans fall short of the recommended 3,500-4,700 mg per day. Since potassium is found in an abundance of fruits and vegetables, low potassium intake is indicative of low fruit and vegetable intake.
Nutrition Labels may look confusing, but with a little practice, you’ll be a pro at reading and understanding them. Knowing how to use a Nutrition Label can help you make healthier choices when shopping for packaged foods.