How to Read—And Actually Understand—Nutrition Labels
Reading nutrition facts panels are a great way to help you make informed healthy eating decisions, but they can be tough to decipher.
Nutrition facts labels are an important snapshot of what a specific food or beverage product is made of, how healthy it is, and what impact it will make on your diet. The FDA made some major changes to nutrition labels back in 2016 in an effort to make them easier to understand, but the labels can still be pretty confusing.
We spoke with our resident dietician Brierley Horton, MS, RD to help you determine how to quickly read and understand the important info on nutrition labels and what to look out for at the grocery store.
It's important to note that serving sizes of packaged foods don't always reflect the amount you may eat. So when you look at a package of Oreo cookies and see 160 calories per serving, it's not for the whole sleeve you might be tempted to eat, but for just three cookies (boo).
To help consumers, the FDA is changing the way serving sizes are displayed to make them more eye-catching, and also updating their table of "Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed" (which companies use to define serving sizes) to more realistically reflect consumer habits.
By law, serving sizes must be based on amounts of food and beverage products people are actually eating. For example, a serving of ice cream is now a two-thirds cup instead of a half-cup, and the serving size for many beverages has increased as well from 12 to 20 ounces.
“You definitely want to know how many servings are in whatever it is that you’re buying,” Horton says. “It’s not all that uncommon for a product to look like a single serving and the nutrition looks a-OK and then you look a little closer and notice that it’s 2 (or more) servings per container.”
Keep serving sizes in mind as you choose your favorite snack food or sweet treat, making sure you are aware of the increase in amount of calories, fat, and sugar you will consume if you eat a larger portion. Adhering to serving sizes is a great way to practice portion control, and we advise sticking to the given amount in most cases, to help you fill up on a wide variety of healthy foods.
However, sometimes proper serving sizes can be hard to determine when making a recipe or packing a bag of grapes on-the-go. We’ve created a handy serving size guide for moments when it’s not as easy as simply reading a label to find out how much you need.
Percent Daily Value
These percentages were pretty confusing for consumers, and the FDA rewrote the footnote on nutrition labels to better explain why percent daily values are important. The footnote now reads, “The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.” By utilizing the Percent Daily Value feature, you can see if a source can be considered a good, bad, or even excellent source of particular nutrients (but more on that later).
“If you don’t know what your target numbers are for nutrients, look at the Percent Daily Value section,” Horton advises. “Even if 2,000 calories a day isn’t your personal target, the Percent Daily Values at least lets you know if that food is incredibly high, low, or just right in terms of nutrient balance” without having to memorize, say, how many grams of fiber you're supposed to eat each day.
You can also utilize these percentages to see just how many calories, carbohydrates, protein, fats, and other nutrients a particular food contributes to your daily intake. Counting your macronutrients, macros for short, has become a popular weight loss method, and these daily values help to keep macro-counters in check. They also can help consumers ensure they are getting enough nutritional variety.
While counting calories isn’t our favorite weight loss method, knowing how many calories are in your food does serve a purpose. Whether you’re trying to lose, gain, or just maintain your weight, every body requires a specific amount of calories based on body size, physical activity level, and other biological factors. Making sure you’re eating enough calories to keep your body healthy and happy is just as important as trying not to consume too many.
However, we find it more important to focus on other components of a food itself besides calories—such as fat, fiber, and protein content—for determining how healthful a food is for you. The year’s best diets are all based on food quality and are less concerned with caloric intake than some of the more restrictive diets out there.
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Fat has seen a lot of backlash over the years, but people are starting to understand the benefits of fat in one’s diet, particularly unsaturated fats. Health authorities advise consuming about one-third of your daily calories from fat.
Great sources of unsaturated fats are nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocados, and certain types of fish. While there isn’t a designated section for unsaturated fat, if a product contains fat and the saturated fat label accounts for none or a limited amount of that fat, it’s likely a good source of either mono or polyunsaturated fats.
When it comes to saturated fat and nutrition labels, the typical rule has usually been to choose products with five grams or fewer per serving. The American Heart Association goes so far to say one should only consume five to six percent of their daily calories from saturated fat, and choosing food products with percentages that reflect this goal is best for a healthy diet.
Some of our favorite meat and dairy foods have sneaky amounts of saturated fat, as well as coconut products, and increasing your intake of unsaturated, plant-based fats is a great way to help balance out your intake.
The government has banned the use of trans fats in food and beverage manufacturing, but companies have until 2020 to get products off the shelves if they were made prior to 2018 (Thanks to the trans fat itself, products containing it are often incredibly shelf-stable). Health authorities advise consuming as little trans fat as possible.
Unfortunately, there was a loophole in nutrition labeling over the years allowing for products with a half-gram of trans fat to be listed as containing none. Look out for ingredients like partially hydrogenated oils to see if trans fats are sneaking into your favorite foods. Peanut butter can be one of those culprits, and choosing a natural variety is the best way to ensure your nut butter is actually trans fat-free.
While the negative benefits of cholesterol are hotly debated, we still advise following the federal recommendation of consuming less than 300 mg per day. Whether or not cholesterol is as bad for your heart as some think, we advise limiting cholesterol-containing foods to those with other major health benefits, such as eggs. Consuming more plant-based foods will help lower your cholesterol intake as well, as they do not contain any cholesterol.
Horton says checking a product for sodium is one of the first things she does when looking at a nutrition label.
“I’m conscious of sodium for myself, but particularly for my kids because their daily limit recommendations are lower than mine, and it’s pretty easy to hit or exceed their target,” Horton says.
It is recommended adults consume less than 2300 mg of sodium per day, and it is much less for children. Depending on their age, children should consume less than 1000-1500 mg per day. Watching junk food consumption and choosing more whole foods for snacks will help keep sodium intake at bay.
Like fat, carbohydrates often get demonized for causing weight gain, but eating the right kinds of carbs can do wonders for your health. Try to consume about half of your calories from carbohydrates each day, and eating whole grains have shown to actually help, not hurt, weight loss.
It is important to choose whole over refined grains when possible, and these can be determined heavily by the amount of fiber they contain. Whole grains can be found in 100 percent whole wheat products, oats, quinoa, brown rice, among others. Whole grain foods contain more fiber, protein, and micronutrients than enriched, refined grain products, and your label is a good place to determine how healthy a high-carb food is.
Fiber is an essential nutrient for proper digestion, boosting immunity, and preventing chronic diseases. It can only be found in plant-based foods, like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and unfortunately, most Americans don’t get enough fibrous foods in their diets. Look for at least three grams of fiber or more on grain-based food labels to ensure they will keep you full till the next meal.
Whether you’re vegan, keto, paleo, or don’t follow a diet at all, we can all agree too much sugar is bad, and it should make up 10 percent or less of your daily caloric intake. However, some foods have naturally occurring sugar, such as fruit and dairy products, and the FDA changed the way it labels sugar to help you choose healthier options.
Horton says she appreciates that there is now an “Added Sugars” section which shows you how much of the sugar content was added into the product. This will help you compare products, such as dried fruit, for example, as it doesn’t need any added sugars, yet some brands still add it in. It can also help show you just how much your favorite yogurt is sweetened.
Everyone can agree on the importance of protein, but how much do you really need? The National Academy of Medicine advises consuming about seven grams of protein ber pound of bodyweight each day. Looking for snacks that contain at least five grams of protein or higher will help give you the boost you need.
List of Ingredients
If you’ve made it all the way through the nutrition facts, congrats! But don’t stop there. Sometimes the ingredients list is the most telling of how healthy a food or beverage product actually is. A box of cookies could say there is only three grams of sugar per serving, but artificial sugars could be lurking there. A loaf of bread could say “made with whole grains,” but it’s really just mostly enriched flour.
The ingredients list should be minimal and shouldn’t contain unpronounceable words. If you’re not sure what the word is, you probably shouldn’t be putting it into your body!