In this article:
- Why nutrition labels matter
- Permission to ignore the front of label
- 4 areas of information and what they mean
- Know your ingredients
- Additional resources
Reading nutrition labels can be quite confusing. There is a lot of information packed in a small box, and much of that information may seem foreign. Knowing how to read nutrition labels can help you avoid unhealthy ingredients in processed foods. And, if you have sensitivities to certain foods or health conditions that require you to check labels carefully, reading labels is vital to your health.
Why do nutrition labels matter?
People who strictly eat wholesome foods will tell you the most straightforward trick to maintaining a healthy diet is to try to prioritize buying foods without labels. Still, the reality is that most of us will eat processed foods. Indeed, many of us enjoy the luxury of having access to different kinds of foods across different seasons and geographic regions.
Reading nutrition labels is challenging primarily because food labeling regulations are incredibly stringent and complex. Yet, helping consumers understand how to read labels is a public health concern as deaths from preventable diseases are increasing rapidly. For example, we know that the standard American diet (S.A.D.) is promulgating the incidence of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Understanding what is in your food is crucial to warding off preventable diseases, improving your quality of life, and decreasing medical costs.
Permission to ignore the front of the label
As you browse the aisles at your local grocer, you likely are drawn to items based on the aesthetic appeal on the label. The front of processed food items grabs your attention to get you to purchase the product. From the colors you see to the words included on the packaging, the front of processed food is purely marketing.
Most food brands know there is a growing interest among consumers to eat healthier foods. Thus, companies use keywords or phrases to encourage the customer to pull their item off the shelf. For example, sugary cereal brands are notorious for making false claims on the front of their boxes to lure you into buying. Here are some keywords and phrases that are generally misleading:
- Multigrain or made with whole grains
- Light or low-calorie
- No added sugar
- Low carb
- Fortified or enriched
- Gluten-free (these foods are gluten-free, but are not necessarily healthy)
- Fruit flavored or naturally flavored
- Zero trans fat
Many consumers love the use of the word ‘organic.’ This buzzword has become many manufacturers’ favorite hook because people see organic and think ‘healthy.’ Yet, just because something is organic does not mean it is healthy. For example, organic sugar is still sugar, which has known health consequences. Additionally, not all ingredients in a food labeled ‘organic’ have to be organic to receive that label.
4 areas of information and what they mean
When you turn a product over, look for the white Nutrition Facts label. For ease of reading, divide this label into four sections.
This section offers a measurement of how many servings are in the container based on what people generally eat. It is not necessarily a recommended serving size; these are standard serving sizes that are developed to help consumers easily compare labels. For example, a 24-ounce container of cottage cheese shows six servings per container. This amount is determined based on the assumption that most people typically eat about ½ cup of cottage cheese each sitting.
A calorie is a unit of measurement that reveals how much energy a food provides. Nutrition labels provide calorie measurements based on the serving size. Thus, if you eat more than a serving size, you will be taking in more calories than listed on the label.
We tend to glaze over the nutrients section because it is full of information. Yet, this section is the bread and butter, so to speak, of what is actually in our food. To make it more simplified, know what ingredients you want more of and those you want less of in your diet. For example:
- Eat less: sodium, added sugar, saturated fats.
- Eat more: Dietary fiber, vitamins (like vitamin D), potassium, calcium, iron, and folate.
Understanding the sugar content can be confusing on a nutrition label. There are two different measurements of sugar: added sugar and total sugar. Added sugar is where sugar is added during the processing phase that is not already present in the food. Examples of added sugar include sucrose, dextrose, maple syrup, honey, and table sugar. Total sugar is a measurement of the sugar naturally found in the food, plus any added sugar.
Percent Daily Value (%DV)
The final section you will want to look at when reading nutrition labels is the righthand column containing %DV. This section informs you of how much of a specific nutrient contributes to your daily dietary requirements. One of the benefits of looking at this section is that it helps you identify if a food is too high or low in a specific nutrient. For example, meeting your %DV in calcium and vitamin D is essential to ward off osteoporosis. Importantly, you may find that there is no %DV of total sugars. This is because there is no set daily requirement for sugars. There is a %DV for added sugars though.
There is an abundance of information available online to educate you about nutrition. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) (which oversees the regulation of processed foods and drinks) recently released the Nutrition Innovation Strategy to make labels easier to understand. You may also want to explore the USDA’s National Organic Program to learn more about buying healthy organic foods.