Everything You Need to Know About Food Labels
It’s hard to remember a time when those “Nutrition Facts” labels weren’t plastered on everything, but it wasn’t until the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act that it became mandatory for most packaged foods to have them. (Some that aren’t: foods sold in bulk, raw fruit, vegetables, seafood and packages smaller than 12 square inches.) While it’s crucial to know exactly what’s in your food, the labels can be pretty confusing. Some nutrition experts think it’s time for a more user-friendly label; until then, here’s how to interpret the current one.
Serving Size and Servings Per Container
This is the first thing you should look at: All of the calorie, fat and other information on the label is based on a single serving. If you eat more than one serving, you have to multiply everything else by that number. Remember, some packages look small but contain two or more servings. And some serving sizes are ridiculously puny. For example, one serving of cold cereal is about 1 ounce, which only fills roughly half of a cereal bowl.
Don’t breeze by this—it represents the number of calories in a single serving. If you eat two servings, multiply that number by 2…and so on. One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that this is the calorie count for the entire package.
Calories from Fat
The number of calories in a single serving that come from fat. For foods that are 100% fat, such as vegetable oil, “Calories from Fat” will be the same number as “Total Calories.”
The amount of fat in one serving. Fat, carbohydrates and protein are measured in grams (g). Nowadays, we know that not all fats are created equal, so that’s why on many labels the different types of fat are broken down:
• Saturated fat is mainly found in fatty cuts of meat as well as in butter, whole milk, cheese and other high-fat dairy foods. Eat as little as possible, since this type of fat can raise your risk for heart disease.
• Trans fat has been shown to lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol and increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which makes it a double whammy for your heart. And there is no safe amount, so only choose products that have 0 trans fats. If you spot “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list, it’s a tip-off that the product contains some trans fat. This shouldn’t be a problem if you eat only one serving, but if you eat more than that—or if you eat several items that contain small amounts of trans fat—then you’re taking in more than you think. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are healthy fats found in olive and canola oils, almonds, walnuts and peanuts. They’re associated with a decreased risk of various conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.
Only animal products contain cholesterol, so don’t get too excited when your favorite cereal or peanut butter says it has 0 cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy people eat less than 300 mg per day; those with heart disease should shoot for less than 200 mg. While it’s important to keep tabs on your cholesterol numbers, the saturated and trans fats in foods have a much bigger impact on your cholesterol levels than actual cholesterol in foods does.
If you have high blood pressure, or any other health condition that is adversely affected by salt, you’d be wise to pay attention to the sodium numbers on a food label. Everyone should aim for a total daily intake of 2,300 mg or less, and those with high blood pressure are advised to consume no more than 1,500 mg per day. Choose packaged entrées that contain no more than 600 mg sodium per serving, side dishes with 400 mg or less and snack foods with about 200 mg or less.
If you’re among the growing number of individuals diagnosed with diabetes, be aware of the total number of carbohydrates in every product you eat, since carbs can make your blood sugar fluctuate. People with normal functioning blood sugar levels, however, can just focus on Dietary Fiber and Sugars, listed under Total Carbohydrate.
• Dietary Fiber Experts recommend 25 to 35 g total fiber daily for most people. Products are considered a good source if they have 2.5 to 4.9 grams per serving; ones with 5+ grams can officially be called “high fiber.”
• Sugars Low-quality carbs that shouldn’t take up much space in your daily diet (unless they’re naturally occurring, such as those in unsweetened fruit and dairy products). The USDA recommends limiting “added sugars” from packaged foods and sugar/honey/jelly packets to no more than 40 g per day, the equivalent of 10 teaspoons. But less is best!
% Daily Value
The Daily Value is how much of a nutrient, vitamin or mineral you should be getting every day. The % Daily Value (listed to the right of each nutrient on the Nutrition Facts panel) tells you what percentage of that nutrient the food/product has. However, this percentage is sort of useless for women: It’s based on 2,000 calories a day, which is more than most of us should be eating. So if the product has a 7% Daily Value for saturated fat but you’re eating 1,600 to 1,800 calories, the product is giving you more than 7% saturated fat. In my opinion, the only reason % DV is helpful is for a quick glance at calcium. I consider products that have at least 25% DV for calcium a good source (25% means 250 mg calcium, 30% means 300 mg calcium, and so on).
Food labels don’t provide a % Daily Value for protein, but I do! Just take your weight in pounds, divide it in half, and you’ve got the number of grams of protein you should try to consume daily. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds, you need 70 grams.
Vitamins and Minerals
Below the thick dividing line under “Protein” you’ll find the % Daily Value for vitamin A, calcium, vitamin C and iron. These are the only ones that must be listed on a food label, but many products include far more.
This list, usually below the Nutrition Facts label, is in order from most to least (the first ingredient is what the product contains the most of) and is very valuable. It reveals potentially undesirable components such as artificial coloring, caffeine and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Usually, the longer the list, the more processed a food is (and you want to try to avoid that). It also helps people with food allergies spot allergens that companies are not required to flag.
Since 2006, all packaged foods that contain any of the eight most common food allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish and tree nuts) must state this info:
• In the ingredient list
• In parentheses after the ingredient: casein (milk)
• Below the ingredient list: Contains: eggs, walnuts
|NAME||MEANS||USED TO DESCRIBE|
|Free||Has no or only trivial amounts||Fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, calories|
|Low||Per serving: Max 3 g fat, 1 g sat fat, 20 mg chol, 140 mg sod or 40 cal||Fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium calories|
|Lean||Less than 10 g fat, 4.5 g or less sat fat and 95 mg chol per 3.5-oz serving||Fat in meat, poultry game meats|
|Extra Lean||Less than 5 g fat, 2 g or less sat fat and 95 mg chol per 3.5-oz serving||Fat in meat, game meats|
|High||Contains 20% or more of the daily recommended intake per serving||Vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber, protein|
|Good Source||Contains 10% to 19% of the Daily Value per serving||Vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber, protein|
|Reduced/Less||Contains at least 25% less of a nutrient or 25% fewer calories than the “original”||Fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol, calories, sugars|
|Light||Has at least 1/3 fewer calories and 50% less fat than the “original”||Fat and calories|
|Light in Sodium||Sodium has been reduced by at least 50%||Sodium|