By Suzanne RD, LD
The food label can be a confusing thing. However, looking at the nutrition facts and the ingredients can tell you a lot about a food.
The first thing under “Nutrition Facts” is the serving size. This is the most important thing to notice. If you are not looking at this, the rest of the information is useless. Compare what you actually eat to the stated serving size. If you are eating more, you will need to multiply the calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates and so on. If you are eating less, you will need to divide everything. For example, this label reads the serving size is 6 crackers. If you eat 12 crackers you would multiply everything by 2. If you eat 3 crackers, you would divide everything by 3.
Servings Per Container
This tells you how many servings are in the container/box/jar. In this case, if you were to eat the whole box of crackers you would have consumed 54 crackers and would have to multiply the calories, fat, protein and other nutrients by 9!
This is the number of calories in ONE serving of the food. When trying to lose, gain, or maintain weight the number of calories you are consuming is important. However, choosing calories that will nourish your body and listening to your body’s hunger signals (more info on this is coming soon) are even more important for success.
Calories from Fat
This tells you the number of calories you will get from fat in one serving. These calories are already included in the calories; you do NOT need to add this number to calories. It is really not that important to look at this number. The fat section will tell you more about the health of the food.
Fat has 9 Calories per gram, unlike protein or carbohydrates that have 4 Calories per gram. This explains why foods that are higher in fat are also higher in calories.
Saturated fat often gets a bad rap, but it is not a fat to avoid completely. Try to keep your saturated fat intake to less than 1/3 of your total fat intake.
This is the one fat to try to avoid. It is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil in a process known as hydrogenation. Even if you look at the label and you see 0 grams next to trans fat, your food or beverage may still have this unhealthy fat. According to labeling laws, if a food has less than 0.5 grams of a fat in one serving, it can be listed as 0 grams. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you eat 4 servings you could be consuming 1-2 grams of trans fat. Looking at the ingredient list is a good way to see if they are telling the truth. If you see the words partially hydrogenated, hydrogenated, margarine, or shortening, it contains trans fat.
Mono and Poly Unsaturated Fat
These unsaturated fats are often deemed as the healthy fats. However, some people will still avoid a food if it is high in fat. If the food is high in fat with a majority being trans fat and you avoid it, that’s great. However, if the food is a good source of unsaturated fat, it is beneficial to eat. For example, nuts, nut butters seeds, some fish, and avocado are high in fat, but it is healthy fat. They can help with your heart health!
Carbohydrates, otherwise known as carbs, give your body energy. In fact, it is the only energy source that your brain wants to use! It is important to choose carbs that will fuel your body, not cause it to crash. Foods that are high in fiber and low in sugar are good choices. Oatmeal, fruits, veggies, and brown rice are great options.
This is a number that you would like to see high! The average healthy female should aim for 25 grams of fiber per day, while the average male should consume 38 grams per day. This is based on an Institute of Medicine equation that calculates 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories.
When you are increasing your fiber intake, do not make a huge increase all at once. If you drastically increase your fiber intake in one day your body will most likely hate you. You will probably experience bloating and gas. Try adding a little fiber one day and little more the next. Drinking plenty of water is also important when increasing your fiber. Oatmeal, fruits, and veggies are a few examples of foods that contain fiber.
Contrary to fiber, you want the grams of sugar to be a low number. Foods that are high in sugar and low in fiber will not keep you full very long and will have a bad effect on your blood sugar levels. Foods like white bread, candy, ice cream, and sodas are great examples of sugary foods and beverages.
Your body needs some sodium to function, but too much is not good. If you have high blood pressure, watching your sodium intake is especially important. The average healthy person should try to limit their sodium intake to less than 2,300mg per day. Soups, frozen dinners, deli meats, and canned veggies are foods that are high in sodium. If an item says reduced sodium, that means the sodium content has been reduced by 25% of its original version. It may still be high in sodium though. Also, if a label says low sodium, it must have less than 140mg per serving.
The grams of protein listed are for one serving size. Remember to adjust accordingly. Protein in your diet is a definite must. It helps to build muscle and is important to cell and organ function. It will also keep you fuller longer than just eating carbohydrates by themselves. Chicken, beef, turkey, fish, nuts, nut butters, eggs, quinoa, Greek yogurt, and beans are all good sources of protein.
% Daily Value
If you look to the right of the grams listed, you will see percentages listed. This is the % Daily Value. This is the percent of a person’s daily needs they will consume from one serving if they are on a “2,000 calorie diet.” However, a majority of people do not need 2,000 calories a day. Some people will need more, while others need less. Because of this I typically focus more on the grams.
The ingredients are listed in order of predominance by weight. This means the item that makes up the most weight of the food is listed first. If the ingredient list looks more like a chemistry list, it is best to stay away.
This is the place to catch any tricks food companies may try to play. As I mentioned before, you will be able to tell if there is any trans fat in your food by looking for the words hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, shortening, and margarine. Also, if you want to make sure you are eating bread that is 100% whole grain, look to see if any of the ingredients following whole wheat are enriched, bleached flour.
There is one thing to look out for here. If you are looking to make sure sugar is not one of the first few ingredients on the list, good for you! However, even though sugar might not be in the top three ingredients, a food or beverage can still have more sugar or sweetener than you would think. Often times multiple sweeteners are used. When looking for sugars/sweeteners keep your eye out for glucose, sucrose, dextrose, evaporated sugar cane, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, and Turbinado sugar. If sugar is the only sweetener used in a product, it will be listed closer to the beginning of the list than if multiple sweeteners are used. If sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and molasses are used instead of sugar alone, they will be found a lot lower on the ingredient list.
Hopefully, this has answered some questions about what the food label is actually telling you. It can be a great tool to help you make healthy food choices.