The Nutrition Facts Label is on almost every box, bag, and can in the grocery store, so it must be important! How then do we decipher what it is trying to tell us? What do all these words and numbers mean? This podcast will break down the label from top to bottom and give you the knowledge and confidence to make good choices on your next shopping trip.
Hi and welcome to Nutritionally Speaking. I’m your host, Michaela Ballmann. Today, I am holding in my hand, a box of cereal, and I’m looking at the Nutrition Facts Label, trying to figure out if it is a healthy choice. What should I look at first? What do all these words and numbers mean? If it would be more helpful, pause the podcast, and go get a box or can of any type of food so you can look at the label while I go over it.
When looking at a Nutrition Facts Label, the first thing you should look at is the Serving Size and the Number of Servings Per Container. This is located directly under the words “Nutrition Facts”. This will tell you in standard measurements, the quantity of food for which the rest of the label describes. For example, if you’re eating a candy bar and look at the Nutrition Facts Label just to make yourself depressed and you see that there are 180 calories, you might think “that’s not so bad”, but you need to look at the serving size to see that a serving is only HALF the bar, so by eating the whole thing, you ate 2 servings, and actually ate 360 calories—yikes! The serving size and servings per container also help you compare this product with another. Say I’m looking at two different types of granola bars. I look at the serving size first and see that they have the same serving size of one bar. Then I can look at the rest of the label to compare the calories, fat, sodium, etc. to get a good look at which is the better choice. Also, the servings per container can be helpful when comparing prices. If one box has 4 bars per container but the other has 6, there might be an economic incentive to buy the one with 6.
Servings per container helps you calculate the total number of calories and nutrients in the entire package—just to give you a heads up in case you subconsciously eat the whole bag while you’re watching TV.
Next, look at the calories per serving and the calories from fat. This is useful in determining whether this product is high in calories (calorie-dense) or not. Also, By dividing the calories from fat into the total calories, I can determine the % of fat this food contains. The dietary recommendations for fat intake range from 20-35% of your total calories, so if you divide the fat calories into the total calories and come up with a number in that range, you’re on the right track! If, the number is higher, say 50%, you know that you can eat a smaller amount of that food, or cut back on other high-fat foods during the day. You don’t have to eliminate high-fat foods from your diet to be healthy. After all, if you eat fruits and vegetables, you will be eating many very-low-fat foods. The key is balance and moderation.
Back to the label!
The nutrients that follow are split into two main groups—those to limit, and those to get enough of. The ones to limit include total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. The ones to get enough of are fiber, vit A, vit C, Calcium, and Iron.
If grams and milligrams are too confusing or there are too many numbers to remember, the %DV (or % daily value) is a life-saver. The Daily value is a recommendation of nutrient intake for the whole day for a 2000-calorie diet. Make note of this! It is for a 2000 calories diet, so if your needs are 1600 or 2400, you will have to make adjustments up or down.
The % DV helps you determine is a serving is high or low in a certain nutrient—the guideline is 5% of less is LOW, and 20% or more is HIGH. So, if you look at the DV of total fat for your food and see that it is 4%, then you know that it is a low-fat food. If you look at the fiber, and see that it is 20%, then you know that it is a high-fiber food. This is SO great, when you start getting confused by all the tricky terms on the front of food packages, such as “light, low, reduced, free, etc.”. I will have another podcast episode on these terms because they confuse a lot of people, but if you don’t want to have to deal with all those terms, just remember 5% and 20%. You want 5% or less for the nutrients to limit, and 20% or more for those that we want to encourage. But remember, we are looking for a nutrient balance at the end of the day, so if you eat several high-fiber foods, don’t beat yourself up for having a low-fiber food. If you eat a lot of low/moderate-fat foods, don’t get upset if you eat a high-fat food.
For those of you that are highly observant, you may have noticed that there is no %DV for trans fat, protein or sugar—why?
First, since we recommend that you limit TF to <1% of your diet; we actually mean that it is best to eat NONE AT ALL! So, there’s no reason to put a % on the label. A little bit of TF is too much because it is linked with raising LDL-C and increasing your risk of CHD.
Second, Protein intake is not a public health concern for adults and children over the age of 4, so the FDA felt no need to put it on there. After all, most Americans (and those in other western countries) eat more than enough protein.
Third, there have not been any recommendations about how much sugar to eat in a day, so there can’t be a % of a number that doesn’t exist. Also, sugar on labels can be deceiving. If you are eating yogurt or milk, there will be sugar listed, even when sugar is not added to the product. It is the naturally-occurring lactose sure in milk—nothing to get bent out of shape over.
So, until guidelines come out for TF, Pro, and sugar, you’ll just have to use your best judgment (less TF and sugar is better, but also don’t overdo it on the Protein and tax your kidneys!)
The footnote at the bottom is just another handy tool to help you with the whole gram, milligram thing, and explains where the % DV comes from. It also reminds you to eat less than the foods listed (fat, sat fat, etc.) and eat at least the amount listed for fiber and the vitamins and minerals.
Lastly, remember to take a gander at the list of ingredients. They are listed by weight from highest to lowest, so basically you want ingredients that you can pronounce, and you want the better ingredients to come first on the list (whole wheat flour before enriched wheat flour). I’ll talk more about this on a later podcast. There also might be an exchange amount that shows (1 ½ CHO exchange; or 1 CHO, 1 PRO, 1 FAT). This is listed voluntarily by the manufacturer and is primarily for people with diabetes who have a specific way of planning their diets (the diabetic food exchanges). This is not necessarily a key component for those who aren’t familiar with this system.
I hope that this episode on How to Read the Nutrition Facts Label has been helpful. It’s a lot of information, so if you have any questions, please write to me .
Thanks for listening and see you next time!