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  • Writer's pictureErica

A Simple Approach to Reading Nutrition Labels

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

Old nutrition facts label FDA

Learning how to eat healthier can be quite overwhelming. It’s a process of discovery. Part of eating healthier is developing an interest in what you’re eating. Then, it's going through the process of learning what exactly you’re eating. Followed by learning what is healthy to eat and how to prepare it. It’s a daunting task. I’m still in it. I feel like it’s a lifelong learning task. There are so many foods to eat. When it comes to healthier foods, there are likely ones native to other parts of the world that you have yet to try. For example, I’ve recently introduced teff into our diets. It’s a traditional grain in Ethiopia that's high in iron and magnesium, gluten-free, as well as a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin B6, zinc, and fiber. Our food is such a crucial part of our beings. It’s how we nourish ourselves. What we put into our bodies should be of the utmost importance to us because it has a critical impact on our health. So once you're interested, how do you start the task of learning what you’re eating? Part of it is learning how to read nutrition labels. Nutrition labels can be a collection of seemingly meaningless information if you are unfamiliar with the contents. 

First, lets go over what’s on the nutrition label. Then I’ll give you tips on how to keep to simple, and quickly obtain what you need to know from the label. There are two parts to the nutrition label, the nutrition facts and the list of ingredients. The nutrition facts label is currently undergoing some revisions. A quick way to discern the difference is that on newer labels the serving size and calories are in larger print. 

There are multiple components to the label: serving size, calories, total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, protein, and a list of vitamins and minerals. 

Serving size on new labels is now intended to reflect more of a portion that people would eat.

Calories in that serving size are in bold print. 

Fat is a fuel source for the body. It is a high calorie source of energy. While protein and carbohydrates contain 4 Calories per gram, fat contains 9 Calories per gram. Of the total fat, only saturated fat and trans fat are shown on the label, as these are fats in which we need to watch consumption. Do not consume trans fat as it increases bad cholesterol called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and decreases good cholesterol called high-density lipoprotein (HDL). This increases the risk of heart disease. It’s found in baked goods, fried foods, vegetable shortenings, frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, fast food, refrigerated ready-to-bake goods, and crackers. According to the FDA, most Americans exceed the recommended intake of saturated fat. Saturated fat can increase total cholesterol and LDL, augmenting the risk of heart disease. Animal products contain higher proportions of saturated fat with the exceptions of seafood (low in saturated fat) and some tropical plant oils (palm, coconut, and palm kernel oils are high in saturated fat). It is also recommended that saturated fat intake be decreased and replaced with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are healthier fats.

Cholesterol is found in animal products like meat and dairy. Cholesterol does not need to be consumed as our bodies make all the cholesterol that we need. If you choose to eat foods that contain cholesterol, be cognizant of the cholesterol content. 

Sodium is a mineral. It’s found in what we call table salt, NaCl; however, it is also part of other food additives. According to the FDA, 75% of the sodium that we consume is from packaged and restaurant foods. It’s important to be aware of the sodium content of the foods you eat. Some foods that are high in sodium can meet or easily exceed the recommended daily value of 2,300 mg or 1,500 mg for those with pre-hypertension or hypertension (hypertension is more commonly called high blood pressure). A diet high in sodium can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease. 

Carbohydrates are another fuel source. Carbohydrates can get a bad reputation, but eating the right carbohydrates is actually very beneficial. An in-depth discussion of carbohydrates is not part of this post, however. There are several forms of carbohydrates: sugars, sugar alcohols, starches, and fiber. Sugars and starches are broken down into glucose, your body’s primary energy source. Sugar alcohols are used as low calorie sweeteners. Fiber is a super carbohydrate. It promotes regularity and fullness. It slows digestion and the speed at which sugar is absorbed; thereby, decreasing blood sugar spikes. It also decreases absorption of fat and cholesterol, both are substances of which you want to watch consumption. On the label you will find the sugar total, the amount of added sugar, and the amount of fiber. Added sugar is a new requirement, so it’ll only be found on newer labels. On older labels, the lack of the separation of added sugar and natural sugar makes it difficult to know how much added sugar is in a product.

Protein is also a fuel source. They are composed of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, and of those, nine our bodies cannot make. Those 9 are called essential amino acids and must be consumed in our diets. Protein can be consumed from plant and animal sources, although plant sources are healthier. Diets lower in meat, processed meat, and processed poultry are associated with decreased risk of several chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. 

Percent daily value (abbreviated DV) is the percentage in a serving size of the recommended intake of the listed component based on a 2000 Calorie diet. Your diet may call for more or less Calories based on your needs and goals. You should consult with your doctor or a registered dietician nutritionist about your caloric needs. 

The second part of the nutrition label is the ingredients list. It is very important to read this portion of the label as it states what you are ingesting. The list of ingredients is ordered by % weight. So the higher on the list, the higher the content by weight. It’s also helpful for older labels that do not list the amount of added sugar. The only way to know if there is added sugar is to read the ingredients list. If you find added sugar, a way to gauge how much there is in the food item is to note where the added sugar is in the order of ingredients. The most important information to gather from the list is the list itself. You’ll want to have a short list of ingredients with whole food as the main ingredients. Aim to eat as simply as possible. Look for foods that contain the whole stuff, the purest form of other foods. For example, a bag of salad contains a list of other simple, recognizable foods. 

So now to simplify reading the label. 

Check out the serving and try to get a visual of what that looks like in your head. As you eat more fruits and veggies, this will matter less. Who cares if you eat 2 servings of broccoli, celery, or apples?

Note the calories of that serving size. Again, when eating most fruits and veggies, who cares?

Quick note on the saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium contents. Aim to decrease intake. Foods that are high in these items contain >20% of the daily value. Foods that are low contain <5%. If you consume a food that’s high in one of these substances, try to keep it low in the remainder of what you eat for the day.

Decide whether there are added sugars. Found in the nutrition facts and ingredients list on newer labels or only in the ingredients list on older labels. It is recommended to keep added sugar below 10% of daily caloric intake or 50g per day (based on 2000 Calorie diet). Try to avoid consuming it at all.

When looking at the label in general, note whether items in question are high or low in the food. Again, high is >20%, low is <5%. For instance, if you’re looking to increase fiber intake, a food that contains >20% DV of fiber is a really good source. 

Read through the list of ingredients. Remember it should be short and simple, containing easily recognizable foods. Highly processed foods contain long lists of cheap substances instead of recognizable whole foods. 

I know that can seem overwhelming, but there’s light at the end of this tunnel. As you become more comfortable with eating whole food, you will spend less time reading labels because who reads the labels on fruits and vegetables. Keep your diet simple by keeping the foods you eat simple. 

Always striving to help,


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