Learning how to read a nutrition label is a fundamental skill for making smarter nutrition choices. Processed foods are required by law to contain a package label describing the serving size, how many servings are in a package, and basic nutrition information related to calories, protein, fat, sugars, fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. In addition, processed foods also contain an ingredient list. Together, this information is supposed to help a consumer make an informed decision. But the process of actually doing this is complicated. Here are some tips on how to read and understand the nutrition label. After reading, I think you’ll agree that we need an easier way to determine if a food is “healthier” or not.
- Start from the top with the serving size and the number of servings per container. All of the nutrient amounts listed on the food label are for one serving, so it is important to determine how many servings are actually being consumed to accurately assess nutrient intake.
- Look at the total calories. This part of the nutrition label is the most important factor for weight control. In general, 40 calories per serving is considered low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 or more calories is considered high.
- The next two sections of the label note the nutrient content of the food product. Try to minimize intake of saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium—and aim to consume adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals, especially fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. The food label includes the total amount of sugars (natural and added). Though the label does not separately identify added sugars, natural sugars are found primarily in milk and fruit. Therefore, if the food item does not belong to either of those two food groups, the amount of sugar contained in the product approximates added sugar. For foods that contain milk or fruit, added sugars can be identified in the ingredients list (see step 6).
The percent daily values are listed for key nutrients to make it easier to compare products (just make sure that the serving sizes are similar), evaluate nutrient content claims (does one-third reduced sugar cereal really contain fewer carbohydrates than a similar cereal of a different brand?), and make informed dietary trade-offs (e.g., balance consumption of a high-fat food for lunch with lower-fat foods throughout the rest of the day). In general, 5% daily value or less is considered low, while 20% daily value or more is considered high.
- Review percent daily values (PDV). The footnote at the bottom of the label reminds consumers that all PDVsare based on a 2,000-calorie diet. If you need more or fewer calories, adjust recommendations accordingly. For example, 3 grams of fat provides 5% of the recommended amount for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet, but 7% for someone on a 1,500-calorie diet. The footnote also includes daily values for nutrients to limit (saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium), recommended carbohydrate intake for a 2,000-calorie diet (60% of calories), and minimal fiber recommendations for 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diets. Find out your calorie needs at supertracker.usda.gov.
- Check for allergens. Legislation also requires food manufacturers to list all potential food allergens on food packaging. The most common food allergens are fish, shellfish, soybean, wheat, egg, milk, peanuts and tree nuts. This information is usually included near the list of ingredients on the package. For those who follow a gluten-free diet, this is also an easy way to identify if wheat is a product ingredient.
- Carefully review the ingredients list. Note that the ingredient list is in decreasing order of substance weight in the product. That is, the ingredients that are listed first are the most abundant in the product. The ingredient list is useful for identifying whether or not the product contains transfat, solid fats, added sugars, whole grains and refined grains. Note that although trans-fat is included in the “fat” section of the nutrition label, if the product contains <0.5g per serving, the manufacturer does not need to claim it. However, if a product contains partially hydrogenated oils, then the product contains trans fat.
- Solid fats: If the ingredient list contains beef fat, butter, chicken fat, coconut oil, cream, hydrogenated oils, palm kernel oils, pork fat (lard), shortening or stick margarine, then the product contains solid fats. The Dietary Guidelines advise limiting solid fats.
- Added sugars: Ingredients signifying added sugars include anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, confectioner’s powdered sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrin, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectar, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, white granulated sugar, cane juice, evaporated corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, crystal dextrose, glucose, liquid fructose, sugar cane juice and fruit nectar. In many cases, products contain multiple forms of sugar.
- Whole grains: If whole grains are the primary food list, then the product is 100% whole grain. The whole grain should be the first or second ingredient. Examples of whole grains include brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, rolled oats, whole-grain sorghum, whole-grain triticale, whole-grain barley, whole-grain corn, whole oats/oatmeal, whole rye, whole wheat and wild rice.
- Refined grains: Refined grains should be “enriched.” If the first ingredient is an enriched grain, then the product is not a whole grain. This is one way to understand whether or not a “wheat bread” is actually whole wheat or a refined product.
While the food label is found on the side or the back of products, other health and nutrition claims are often visibly displayed on the front of the package. Though the FDA regulates these claims, they are frequently a source of confusion. Consumers should be skeptical of front-of-package claims and evaluate them on a case-by-case basis. A loophole allowing qualified health claims has paved the way for manufacturers to claim unproven benefits to products, as long as the label states the claim is supported by very little scientific evidence.
This process of trying to make sense of food labels to make healthy choices is complex. In an attempt to simplify the process, many efforts have been made to create easier-to-understand labels (see this Time article for more information), but none have become standard. With the technological advances and the widespread use of smartphones, several apps are now on the market that can help to simplify and demystify the process of making healthy nutrition choices. For example, Fooducate allows you to scan the bar code of a processed food and the app will give the food a grade A-D, based on its nutritional value.
Maybe one day it won’t be so hard, but for now, whether you use an app for help or do the analysis yourself, it pays to know how to use food labels to make smarter choices.
Natalie Digate MuthContributor
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, FAAP is the Senior Advisor for Healthcare Solutions for the American Council on Exercise, a board-certified pediatrician and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a Diplomat of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, and ACE Certified Health Coach. She is the author of "Eat Your Vegetables and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters" and the textbook "Sports Nutrition for Health Professionals." She has been ACE certified since 1998.
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