It is important to get to know what is in your food by learning how to read a nutrition label. Much of the information listed is required by the government. This guide should help you read between the lines to figure out what is in your packaged food.
Nutrition Facts Label
The FDA recently announced an update to the Nutrition Facts Label. Most large companies have to comply with the new requirements by January 1, 2020 while other companies have until January 1, 2021. You may have already started seeing some of the changes as companies have gotten a head start to updating their labels.
Serving Size and Servings Per Container
Every label that you see is going to include some of the same basic information. This Serving Size section is the basis for determining the number of calories, the amount of each nutrient and the percentage daily value (%DV) of a food. Serving size is based on standard measures agreed upon by the USDA and the FDA. Serving sizes are given in recognizable units: cups or pieces and the number of grams which should help you pay attention to how many servings you are consuming. The new label has the serving size in larger and bolder type and the serving size has been updated to reflect how much people actually eat.
If you want to manage your weight (lose, maintain or gain), this section is especially helpful—you can control your intake by having awareness around the serving size and how many servings you are consuming. Calories are rounded to the nearest 5 calorie increment. Calories are now displayed in larger and bolder type and the calories from fat has been removed because research has shown that the type of fat consumed is more important than the number of fat calories consumed.
Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium
Eating too much total fat (including saturated and trans fat), cholesterol or sodium may increase your risk for certain diseases and chronic conditions. The goal is to stay well below 100% of the Daily Value. Note that the %DVs on the Nutrition Facts Labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Trans fat should be avoided altogether when possible. Keep your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol as low as possible.
A rule of thumb is that milligrams of sodium should be less than or equal to the number of calories per serving. When using canned foods with added salt, rinse off the liquid to reduce the sodium content. There is no difference between the old label and new label for this section.
Carbohydrates, Fiber, Sugar, Protein and Vitamins/Minerals
Total carbohydrates refer to sugar, fiber and complex carbohydrates. Americans often don’t get enough dietary fiber. The new label includes added sugars because research has shown that it is difficult to get the nutrients that you need when you consume more than 10 percent of your calories from added sugars. The old label focuses on some nutrients where deficiencies are now rare and so the FDA has removed the requirement to show vitamin A and vitamin C on the label. Manufacturers are still able to list these vitamins voluntarily if they wish. The new label keeps calcium and iron along with adding vitamin D and potassium because these nutrients are what Americans are currently lacking in their diets. Eating enough of these nutrients may improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and chronic conditions. The healthy nutrients that must be listed on the new nutrition label include fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. Note: You will see other vitamins listed from time to time, but listing them is not mandatory. Again, the %DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Select food high in fiber (at least 2-3 grams per serving). The daily goal for fiber should be 28 grams based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Fiber helps normalizes bowel movements, maintains bowel health, lowers cholesterol, helps control blood sugar levels and aids in achieving healthy weight. If a serving contains less than 1 gram of dietary fiber per serving, fiber is to be expressed as “Less than 1 gram” or “Contains less than 1 gram,” or the manufacturer has the option to not list dietary fiber and include the following statement at the bottom of the table of nutrients: “Not a significant source of dietary fiber.”
In the past, no daily value had been set for sugar, and it is difficult when looking at the labels to tell if the food is high or low in sugar. Sugar refers to both added sugar and what is normally occurring in the product, like lactose (the sugar in milk) or sucrose (the sugar in fruit). Healthy food may be high in carbohydrates and have no added sugar, but when looking at the sugar content, the number of grams will be high. The new label clearly shows the added sugars and the %DV, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. You should try and reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet as it is considered empty calories with little to no nutrients. For reference, 5 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that women should limit sugar to 30 grams per day and men should limit sugar to 45 grams per day. To select foods low in added sugar, look at the list of ingredients. If any added sugar is in the top 3 ingredients then it has too much sugar. Be aware that added sugar takes on many forms on a food label—which will be covered in the section The List of Ingredients below.
Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern and so there is no %DV listed. For reference, the FDA recommends 50 grams of protein per day for adults and children 4 or more years of age.
The footnote on the old label provided information about the DVs for important nutrients including fats, sodium and fiber. The DVs are listed for people who eat 2,000 or 2,500 calories per day. For fat, cholesterol and sodium, the amounts listed are the maximum amounts that you should eat every day, not a goal to be reached. This means that you should try to stay below the amounts listed. The FDA requires that the note at the top of this footnote is on all food labels. The remaining information does not need to be included if the label is too small. When the full footnote does appear, it will always be the same and does not change from product to product. The footnote on the new label has changed to better explain the %DV.
For reference, the below chart includes information for women that follow a 1,600 calorie diet.
The List of Ingredients
This is the best place to look to get an overall quick snapshot of the healthfulness of the product. Ingredients are listed in order of predominance by weight with the highest weight ingredient listed first followed in descending order to the ingredient used in the least amount. What to look for:
Ingredients that you know. If you don’t recognize something look it up. Try to stick to as few ingredients as possible—less than ten is a good place to start. Less than five is ideal
The first 2 ingredients should be healthy ones, such as fruit, vegetable, whole grains, and protein. If you see fat, sugar or salt listed in the first three ingredients, you can assume that it is not the most healthful option
Try to avoid products with partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil
Avoid high-fructose corn syrup
Limit artificial colors (examples are certified colors: “FD&C Red No. 40” and “artificial colors”), artificial flavors and artificial sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame K, Splenda, sucralose, saccharine, neotame). These are toxins and don’t easily flush from the body
Look for preservatives. When an approved chemical preservative is added to a food, the ingredient list must include both the common name of the preservative along with the function of the preservative such as “preservative”, “to retard spoilage”, “a mold inhibitor”, “to help protect flavor” or “to promote color retention”. Limit foods with added preservatives
Major food allergens that must be listed are milk, egg, fish (species), Crustacean shellfish (crab, lobster or shrimp), tree nuts (specific nut), wheat, peanuts, soybeans. These account for 90% of food allergens. If you have a food allergy, this requirement makes avoiding the allergen much easier. If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, this part of the label is helpful in selecting foods that are appropriate for you.
Fortified means that nutrients have been added that are not normally part of the food
Enriched means that nutrients lost in processing have been added back
Ingredients ending in –ose like dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, lactose
fruit juice concentrates
high-fructose corn syrup
invert sugar lactose
Nutrient Content Claims
There are often claims made on the package. Listed below are the FDA guidelines around these claims.