Label reading is a tricky business. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 requires almost all food products to bear nutrition labeling. 59 percent of adults who are watching their weight say they look at food labels frequently or almost always. Understanding food labels will help you to make healthy food choices, but only if you know what to look for. Many consumers aren’t sure where to start. A 2105 study surveyed over 2,000 adults and asked them what they looked at most frequently on the food label. The most popular choice? Calories. This was followed by sugar, serving size, and total fat content, with fiber and vitamins/minerals coming in last. While calories are important, it may surprise you to know that this is not the number you should look at first. And fiber? That should be moved way up the list. Here is a rundown of the most important elements of the food label, and a general guideline of the order in which you should look at them.
- Start with Serving Size / Servings per Container. This is where your eye should go to first, and for good reason: the rest of the nutrition information on the label is based on one serving. The FDA sets serving sizes for foods, and total calories, sugar, fat, etc. are all calculated per serving. The serving sizes may not be intuitive, and it can be easy to overconsume. A pint of ice cream may say 260 calories per serving, but the whole container may have four servings or 1,040 calories.
- Check Calories. While calories are only part of the picture, it’s important to know when it comes to determining how big of a portion you are going to eat. Adult women typically need anywhere from 1,800 to 2,200 calories, and adult males 2,200 to 2,500 calories (it varies depending on activity level). If you eat something that has 600 calories, that is equivalent to one-third of your daily needs. If it’s a 600 calorie meal with protein, whole grains, and veggies, great. But if it’s a 600 calorie ice cream cone in the middle of the afternoon, you may want to reconsider the portion size. This example pretty much sums up the not only the importance of calorie awareness but also of the quality of calories. Most of the time, go for calories that bring positive nutrition while filling you up!
- Eyeball Sugar. The amount of sugar is listed in grams, which isn’t easy for any of us to visualize. To get a better idea, divide the grams of sugar by four, which will tell you how many teaspoons of sugar it is equivalent to. If the food label says 36 grams of sugar, this means that there are nine teaspoons of sugar in one serving. One caveat: the current food labels do not differentiate between natural sugar (like that from fruit or milk products) and added sugar. The FDA has mandated new guidelines for food labels that will include added sugars, but in the meantime, if a food has a high sugar content but doesn’t contain any fruit or dairy – it’s probably all added sugar.
- Pick Some Protein. Take a look at the grams of protein. Protein, along with fiber and fat, helps to keep you full and satiated for longer. If you are picking a packaged snack food or meal, you want it to include at least a few grams of protein if not more.
- Minimize Sodium. The recommended daily limit for most adults is 2,300 milligrams per day. With at least 70% of our daily sodium coming from packaged foods, you want to make sure to watch this number. A single serving of soup can contain almost 1,000 milligrams or more, nearly half the daily limit. The amount can vary between brands, so make a comparison before buying. And don’t forget, as with everything else, the sodium levels are tied to the serving sizes so if you’re eating more than one serving—say a whole can of soup rather than a cup—you’ll need to do the math to calculate the amount of sodium you’re taking in.
- Fill up on Fiber. The recommended amount of daily fiber is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men, but most of us are consuming just half that amount. Fiber helps to slow down digestion, keeping you full for longer and helping to keep your GI tract healthy. Look for products that are made with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and have at least three to four grams of fiber per serving. Of course, fresh fruits and veggies don’t come with a nutrition facts panel, so eat a colorful variety each day to help you meet your fiber needs.
- Skip Trans Fats. Manufacturers are required to include trans fats on the labels and you’ll want to keep an eye out for them. These unhealthy fats raise LDL (“bad” cholesterol), lower HDL (“good” cholesterol), and are linked with higher risk of heart disease. The good news is, it’s very easy to avoid these unwanted, artificial fats since they’re only present in about 2% of foods sold in the grocery store. They’re mostly in things made with shortening, like pie crusts, sprinkles, and some baked goods. To steer clear, look for foods with zero grams of trans fats. But watch out: if a food product has less than one gram of trans fat per serving, the company is allowed to list “zero grams” trans fat on the label. While it may not seem like a lot, those trace amounts can add up if you are eating multiple servings per day. Avoid this by scanning the ingredient list and skipping foods that contain any partially hydrogenated oils.
- Last But Not Least. Total fat, total carbohydrate, cholesterol, and vitamin/mineral amounts round out the food label. Total fat is not as important as the type of fat in the product – try to pick foods low in saturated fat and high in mono and polyunsaturated fats. Total carbohydrates include everything from whole grains and fiber to added sugars. It’s more important to look at fiber and sugar content, unless you have diabetes, in which case, it is the number of total carbs that affects your blood sugar. Cholesterol in food isn’t as important as we once thought, so, for the most part, you can ignore this number. As for vitamins and minerals, these amounts include any found in the food naturally along with any that are added to it.
While the nutrient content and numbers on the food label are important, don’t overlook the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed by weight, with those present in larger amounts listed first. Quality calories matter more, so scan the list of ingredients and look for unprocessed, recognizable ingredients like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and herbs and spices. Avoid foods with long ingredient lists that include unrecognizable words, added sugars or sugar substitutes, and highly processed ingredients.
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