Making Sense of Food Labels

The nutrition community recently has been abuzz with news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is looking to update the nutrition facts labels found on the back of packaged foods.  You probably have dozens of foods in your cabinets that contain these labels, and you may even glance at them once in awhile to see if you’re making a smart nutritional choice.  Nutrition labels in their current form are confusing, so it’s no surprise that the government wants to give them an overhaul to make them more user-friendly. 

The proposed changes to the labels include a more prominent calorie count (the first piece of information most consumers check); more realistic serving sizes (let’s face it – most of us don’t stick to the recommended ½ cup of ice cream or 8 ounces of soda); and a differentiation between naturally-occurring and added sugars in a product (currently, only the total sugar count is listed, and it’s almost impossible to figure out how much of that sugar comes from natural sources, like fruit and dairy, versus how much refined sugar has been added into the product).  The aim of adapting the labels to the needs of consumers is that more people will actually use them to make healthy choices.

Although nutrition labels may currently be a little hard to figure out, there is still some useful information on them, including:

Serving Size and Servings per Container:  Being aware of the serving size and how many servings are in the container of food you’re eating is a great way to keep track of how many calories you’re consuming.  Serving sizes are recommendations for how much of a product you should consume in a single sitting.  In the event you end up eating more than one serving, it’s helpful to know how many servings you consumed, and how many calories were in each serving.  It’s also a good idea to pay attention to how many servings are in a container, as it’s really easy to drink an entire 20-ounce bottle of coke without realizing that there are 2.5 servings in that bottle, and each serving contains 100 calories – so that bottle of Coke is going to cost you 250 calories, which may be a lot more than you bargained for.

Percent Daily Values:  With the exception of calories, it can be hard to remember how much of a nutrient (like fat, sodium, or fiber) you should be consuming each day.  Rather than stressing out about counting grams of sodium, you can simply look at the % Daily Value column to determine whether or not your food is a low or high source of a nutrient.  Percent Daily Values let you know the percentage of the Recommended Daily Value of a nutrient your food contains.  While these recommendations are based on an adult consuming a 2,000-calorie/day diet, most nutrient recommendations are the same or similar for all healthy adults (so even though you may only consume 1,500 calories a day, you need just as much Vitamin A as someone who consumes 2,000 calories a day).  The easiest way to make use of the % Daily Values is to remember that anything that contains <5% of the Recommended Daily Value is a low source of a nutrient, while anything containing >20% of the Recommended Daily Value is a high source of a nutrient.  You should try and choose foods that are low sources of nutrients to limit, like sodium and saturated fat, and high sources of nutrients to increase, like fiber and Vitamin C. 

Ingredients List:  Although it doesn’t contain any numbers, the ingredients list may be the most valuable portion of a food label, since it lets you know every ingredient a food contains.  General rules to follow when it comes to choosing a healthy food based on its ingredients list are:  choose foods with as few ingredients as possible; be on the lookout for words you can’t pronounce or words that signal unhealthy additives like partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat), monosodium glutamate (MSG), or sucralose (Splenda, an artificial sweetener); and avoid foods with unhealthy ingredients like sugar at the beginning of the list, as the ingredients present in the largest quantities are listed first.  Ingredients lists are also the only way to currently determine if a product contains added sugar, although it’s not always easy.  Sugar can take many forms in packaged foods, including sucrose, fructose, maltose, or dextrose (basically, anything ending in –ose); cane syrup; molasses; honey; agave; and maple syrup.  Reading the ingredients list is the only surefire way to know if your food contains items you might want to avoid, as the nutrition facts panel doesn’t always tell the whole story.

The next time you’re shopping for food, or going through your cupboards to find a healthy choice, I challenge you to be a food detective and carefully read the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list.  What you uncover may surprise you, and will hopefully lead you on the path to healthier eating.


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