When I worked as the Nutrition Curriculum Development and Evaluation Intern for Bel Brands, USA and the Boys & Girls Club, my favorite chapter to write was about nutrition labels. Think about it. How many times a day are you faced with a food decision? Do you ever use the nutrition label to make a healthy choice? Maybe it's time you should!
Since food labels are everywhere, I wanted to provide some tips on how food labels are meant to be read and used.
So where do we start?
1.) Start with the Serving Size1
When I was younger, I would flip over a package and look first at the calories and then the fat content. Who knew it was so easy to overlook the serving size! When looking at the food label, look both at the serving size and also the number of servings in a container. This influences the entire food label. If you eat more than one serving, then all of the other numbers on that label will also change in accordance. For example, if you were to eat two servings of a food item, then all of the other sections of the label would be doubled as well.
After consulting with the serving size section, direct your attention to the calories and calories from fat. On the label above, there are 250 calories total in ONE serving of the food--110 of those calories comes from fat. When looking at the calories section, a general guide is as follows:
While some critics argue that calories aren't everything, it is important to note that excessive calorie intake has been linked repeatedly to obesity and body composition of males and females.2
3.) Limit these Nutrients1
Yes, it is true that you do need fat in your diet. (Especially the monounsaturated and essential fats.) However a little goes a long way, so it is still something to pay attention to. Fat, cholesterol and sodium may increase a person’s risk for heart disease, cancers, and hypertension.
A rule of thumb: if a product is greater than 20%, it is considered high in that nutrient. If it is less than 5%, it is considered low. For this particular label, the food is high in sodium, because it has 20% of the daily value.
4.) Get enough of these Nutrients1
Pay close attention that you are getting enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in your diet. Females should get about 25 grams of fiber daily, while men should consume around 38 grams.3 However, the U.S. has been found to be fiber deficient.4
5.) Understand the Footnote1
After examining all parts of the label, notice the footnote section. The footnote indicates the number of calories that the %DV (percent-Daily Value) is based off of on this label. Most labels are based off of a 2000 calorie diet. This is something to be mindful of if you should be consuming less or more calories each day. For example, this label indicates that a person on a 2000 calorie diet should consume 65 grams of total fat each day. However, if you were on an 1800 calorie diet, your daily value would be set lower.
While this is not mentioned in the article by the FDA, I would also like you to pay attention to the ingredients list. Less is better in this instance. Think of the last time you perused through the produce section. Did you see many food labels stamped on the fruits and vegetables? That is because those foods only have the one ingredient. The foods with long lists of foreign, difficult-to-pronounce ingredients are ones to avoid or eat less often.
I hope that these tips help you better understand how to use the entire label. We are often fixated on fat or carbohydrates. However, nutrition is all about the big picture. Have balance in all aspects of your life and you are already on your way to a healthier, happier life.
**If you are someone who is a diabetic or has a specific condition, you may need to make some modifications on how you look at the nutrition label. This is a general guide for the public. If you have seen a registered dietitian or physician, follow their advice on how to best read the label for your health status.
- Food and Drug Administration. How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. June 2000. Updated May 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/labelingnutrition/ucm274593.htm.
- Miller WC. Lindeman AK. Wallace J. Niederpruem M. Diet composition, energy intake, and exercise in relation to body fat in men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990: 52(3):426-30.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Health Implications of Dietary Fiber. J Am Diet Assoc (2008): 1717-31
- Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2002.