One of the first things we learn in nutrition school is how to properly read a nutrition label. I believe this is one of the most important things to learn how to do properly as there are SO many choices available.
The nutrition facts label is a label required on most packaged foods showing what nutrients and ingredients are in the food. The nutrition label can be found on the side of packages.
Some food labels can be tricky to decipher and it takes an experienced eye to understand what certain food labels mean.
I decided to dedicate a post on how to read a nutrition label properly and how you can use the information effectively to your advantage.
Alright, let’s get into it.
How To Properly Read A Nutrition Label
This image is from the FDA website
You can reference the image above throughout this post.
Take a look at the number of servings in the package (servings per container) and the serving size. In this example, there are 4 servings per container and EACH serving size is a cup (four cups total).
All of the numbers given on this nutrition label are for a single serving, NOT the entire package. In this example, there are 280 calories per serving. If you ate the entire package then you would consume 4 servings, or 1,120 calories.
Glance at the number of calories. I am not someone who recommends counting calories or tracking calories. But, it’s still good to know approximately how much you are consuming.
Also, depending on the food product, I may totally ignore the calories and calories per serving.
Let me explain. If I am buying a whole and nutritious food, like almonds, the number of calories does not matter to me personally. Just because the calories in this food may be high, it does not mean that I am going to avoid it.
However, knowing that almonds are higher in calories helps me be aware of the portion size I am consuming. Knowing general information like nuts and seeds are high in fat which means they are higher in calories is important for those that want to lose weight.
Calories are a “good to know” but not something you really need to stress about.
Read the total carbohydrates, dietary fiber and added sugars.
Total carbohydrates is all of the carbs in the food which includes fiber, total sugars and added sugars.
One important nutrient that I highly recommend you start paying attention to is dietary fiber. On average, American adults eat 10 to 15 grams of total fiber per day, while the USDA’s recommended daily amount for adults up to age 50 is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men.
Choose foods with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving whenever possible since fiber is essential for overall health and wellbeing.
Remember, the number listed is the nutrient per serving so you can have 2 servings to double the fiber intake.
Let’s quickly talk about added sugars versus total sugars listed on the label.
Total Sugars on the nutrition facts label includes sugars naturally present in many foods, like the sugar in milk and fruit INCLUDING any added sugars that may be present in the product.
Added Sugars on the Nutrition Facts label include sugars that are added during the processing of foods like corn syrup and table sugar. Try to limit these added sugars as much as possible.
Look at the nutrients you need to eat less of: Saturated Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars.
These nutrients are associated with adverse health effects because they are generally over consumed. Eating too much saturated fat and sodium has been shown to increase risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure according to American Heart Association. Consuming too much added sugars can lead to weight gain and diabetes.
The % Daily Value (% DV) is the percent daily value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. This number shows how much of that nutrient is in a serving of food.
A quick guide to %DV
- 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low
- 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high
A few things to keep in mind when trying to choose better food options.
Fat free foods does not mean healthy or healthier.
For example, if you are deciding between fat free and full fat dairy, go with the full fat or at least low fat. This is because some nutrients need fat to absorb better. Some vitamins that need fat include vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K. When you choose fat free dairy, your body will not absorb vitamin D well. Therefore, choosing food options with some fat, especially when they naturally come with fat, is usually the better choice. Also, having fat in food provides energy and satiety so don’t be afraid of fat in foods.
Try to choose foods without any added sugars as often as you can. Usually ultra processed foods contain added sugars, oils and other additives. This is not to say you can’t ever eat those foods, but being mindful of how often you are eating foods with added sugars will help you understand your eating habits.
The ingredient list must contain every single ingredient present in the food product, in order of greatest to least. This is how I usually compare food products. For example, let’s say I am buying strawberry jam. If strawberries are not the first ingredient, I am not buying it. Other jams may not even use real strawberries so this is where the ingredient list comes in handy. You can easily compare the quality of the food product when you are reading the ingredient list.