The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires labeling for most prepared foods including breads, cereals, desserts, drinks, and canned and frozen foods. Labeling raw produce such as fish, fruits and vegetables is voluntary. Dietary supplements must follow separate labeling requirements, which is beyond the scope of this article.
When looking at a nutrition label, it is important to understand what the numbers mean and how they will affect your goals. The information given here is an overview. For help with specific questions, contact a nutrition coach, a nutritionist, or a physician.
The first step is to look at serving size. Often times the serving size is not realistic in most people’s minds. For instance, one serving of ice cream is ½ cup. Look at your ½ cup measuring cup. Now look at the size of the bowl you usually use to eat ice cream from. How does the bowl compare with the measuring cup? Is this what you expected?
Next on the nutrition label is to learn if the food or drink in the package is one serving or 2, 3 or more? In the example of the Minute Maid Orange Juice food label to the right, the bottle is 15.2 fluid ounces but is 2 servings. This is another example of how the serving size could easily be smaller than you expect.
The total fat in grams is listed. There are 9 calories in one gram of fat so if you take the total fat in grams and multiply it by nine, this is the total fat from calories you see. The American Heart Association recommends that you get no more than 30% of your daily calories from fat. The breakdown of types of fat is as follows:
- Less than 10% of your daily calories from saturated fat.
- No more than 10% of your daily calories from polyunsaturated fat.
- 10 to 15% of your daily calories from monounsaturated fat.
Eliminating or limiting your trans-fats is strongly suggested. Scientific reports link trans fat and saturated fat with raising blood LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels which increases your risk of coronary heart disease.
The amounts of each are listed, and the percent of daily value given is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. If your daily target calories are 1,500 then you only need 75% of the recommended daily value, and you should take this into consideration when choosing your foods and your portion sizes. A value of 5% or less is considered a low source of that nutrient while 20% or more is considered high.
If a label shows net carbs, it is referring to the carbohydrates, which significantly impact your blood sugar level. This is calculated by subtracting fiber from carbohydrates.
Note the FDA does not require a percent daily value to be listed for trans-fats, protein, and sugar because there isn’t a recommended daily amount. However these are important components of your diet.
Do you suffer from food allergies? Look on the label before eating for statements such as “This product may contain traces of nuts.” or “Produced in a facility that uses tree nuts.”
If you are reading a cereal label, it will sometimes also give the percent daily value for the cereal when eaten with milk. Be sure to note the amount of milk, again compare it to what you normally use, and the type of milk. Fat free milk is often used on these labels.
How Can You Use This Information?
To lose weight – at a minimum, look at calories and fiber. Adults need 25–35 grams of fiber daily. Most Americans don’t get nearly this amount.
To build muscle – look at protein. The recommended daily allowance is 0.36 gram per pound of body weight but those who exercise need more. Professional athletes and bodybuilders often aim for 1.5 grams per pound of lean bodyweight.
To improve bone health – calcium. Women need 1,000–1,200 mg per day, older women need more. Calcium supplements are good but understand that calcium citrate can be taken anytime, calcium carbonate has more acid so take it with food. A person can absorb 300–500 mg of calcium at one time.
To lower cholesterol – fat. If you are overweight, reducing your calories and increasing your fiber can help.
To lower blood pressure – sodium. No more than 2400 mg/daily is recommended. Food with 140 mg is considered low sodium. Again, reducing calories to lose weight also helps.
Next on the packaging is the list of Ingredients which includes all ingredients used in making this product. They are listed in order of weight. The first 4 or 5 items comprise the vast majority of what you are eating.
In the above example of Kellogg’s Corn Pops, corn, sugar, corn syrup, molasses and salt are the first five ingredients. Most of what you are eating is corn, sugar and salt. This product doesn’t have a high nutritional value and could prevent you from reaching your goal of losing weight or building muscle. Similarly, if flaxseed oil, a product known for its health benefits, is near the end of the list, the amount is almost negligible. With this information, you can make better-informed decisions that will help you improve your health!