Do you get stuck trying to decode these labels at the grocery store?
The easiest way to know the contents of the food you are eating is to look at the nutrition label. In May 2016, the FDA released new regulations for nutrition labels in an attempt to make it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices. However, some people may still find decoding all the numbers and percent’s to be intimidating. This is why we have created a simple guide to help to you understand those tricky nutrition labels.
Before we get into the specifics of reading a nutrition label, let’s first discuss the changes that were made by the FDA.
- Added sugars are clearly labeled
- “Calories from fat” has been removed
- Serving sizes are more realistic
- Daily values are being updated
To see these changes in action, here is the newest form of nutrition label compared to an old one from the FDA website.
Okay so although now we can see the changes that were made, you may still be confused as to what you should be looking at on the label or what things mean. Below we are going to break down the food label by what sections and numbers you should be checking.
1. Start with the Serving Size
You want to first look at the serving size and servings per container. The serving size is the amount people typically eat at one time, while the servings per container is the number of that size serving in the entire item.
The serving size is based off the amount that people typically eat, however this might not be the amount you eat. If the serving size listed is 1 cup, and you normally eat 2 cups, then you will be getting twice the number of calories, protein, fat and other nutrients listed.
2. Look at the Calories
The calorie amount is going to be based off the given serving size. Again, don’t choose foods just because they have a small number of calories listed because the serving size could be way smaller than the actual amount you eat. If you are watching your weight, you will want to make sure you calculate the number of calories based off your own personal serving size.
3. Use the Daily Values to Decide
The new regulations of the nutrition labels updated the daily value information so more people are informed of what this means. Each label contains a footnote reading “*The % Daily Value tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”
The percent shown with daily value therefore correlate with an entire 2,000 calorie/day meal plan, not just one meal. If you know that you need less or more than 2,000 calories a day, you can evaluate if the particular food will fit well in your diet. In terms of a 2,000 calorie/day plan, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics gives ranges to be cautious of:
- Low: 5% or less
- Aim low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium.
- High: 20% or more
- Aim high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
4. Check Saturated Fat, Added Sugars and Sodium
You want to check the level of these things on the food label. A diet consisting of too much saturated fat, added sugars and sodium can lead to chronic disease and other health problems. Checking these number or percent daily values on each food item’s label that you are eating can help you track if you are consuming too much, and help to limit the amount in the food you are consuming throughout the day.
5. Vitamins, Minerals and Fiber
High amounts of nutrients such as fiber, potassium, vitamin D, calcium and iron are essential for many people to contain in their diets. You should be checking these numbers on the nutrition labels to track how much you are getting throughout the day and adjust your diet accordingly.
If you have a specific health condition such as renal disease, you should also be looking at the number of nutrients listed because you may need to avoid high amounts of certain nutrients in your diet. Phosphorus is not required to be listed on a nutrition label, so check the ingredients to see if phosphorus, or a phosphorus-containing compound is listed.
6. Ingredients List
Besides reading the nutrition label, you always want to look at the ingredients list. Foods on the list are in descending order by weight in the product. So, those found in the largest amount in the product are listed first. Check to see if sucrose, fructose, or another sugar product is listed as one of the first ingredients, if you trying to avoid high amounts of sugars in your diet. There are often also allergy warnings listed such as, “Contains Milk” for those with specific food allergies.
Remember these tips for the next time you go to purchase a snack, or go grocery shopping. Always remember to check the nutrition label before you indulge in something that might end up hurting your diet!
Sarah Domino, Penn State Intern