If you have ever picked up any packaged food item such as a bag of pretzels or a can of soup, you may have noticed that the side panel of the packaging contains a lot of important- and sometimes very confusing- information. Boxed, canned and packaged foods offer a lot of nutrition information on their labels, but what does it all mean? We will share some tips on how to read your food labels effectively, and what to look for to help achieve your own health goals.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a Nutrition Facts label on most packaged foods and beverages (1). The purpose of the Nutrition Facts label is to provide you with nutrition information based on the serving size of the product. It is helpful to know how to read the nutrition facts panel and what it means in relation to your own nutritional needs.
Listed at the top of the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size, sometimes followed by the amount of servings per container. The serving size is usually shown in a common household measurement that is appropriate to the food (such as cup, tablespoon, etc), followed by the metric amount in grams (g) (2). It is important to note that when considering serving size, it is for informative purposes; it is not a recommendation of how much of the food you should or should not consume. Serving size can act as a useful tool to understand the calories and nutrients that the food provides compared to the portion size you eat.
Calories are listed next and are based on one serving. A food calorie refers to a kilocalorie, or 1000 cal, and is the amount of energy needed to raise 1 kg of water 1°C (3). In other words, it is the total amount of “energy” a serving of food provides. Caloric needs may vary depending on age, gender, body type, activity level and personal nutrition goals. Nutrition apps such as Lifesum can help you calculate your caloric needs and track your goals.
Nutrients are also reflected based on one serving, and are often listed in grams, as well as correspond to a percent Daily Value (%DV). The %DV shows how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a total daily diet based on 2,000 calories (1). %DV can help you to evaluate how a particular food fits into your daily plan and if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient based on your needs (4). Nutrients that generally appear on the Nutrition Facts label include:
The ingredient list identifies each ingredient in the food product by its common name and are listed in descending order by weight (1). It is important to also consider the ingredient label when evaluating a product. This allows consumers to identify sources of added sugars, trans fats and sodium not readily noticeable as they are sometimes listed under different names. Be aware of these terms often used to identify these nutrients:
Now you are armed and ready with food label knowledge for your next trip to the grocery store. Being aware of what to look for on nutrition labels and ingredient lists can be very helpful in planning meals and snacks to fit into your personal nutrition plan. Still not sure what to do? Nutrition apps such as Lifesum have barcode scanners to scan packaged items and can help you to understand how the nutritionals for that item fits into your personal nutrition goals. What will you look for on your nutrition labels?
All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.
1. National Institute on Aging (NIA). Reading Food Labels. 2019. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/reading-food-labels (Accessed 2020-20-5)
2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. 2020. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/serving-size-new-nutrition-facts-label (Accessed 2020-20-5)
3. Buchholz, Andrea C, Schoeller, Dale A. Is a calorie a calorie? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Volume 79, Issue 5, May 2004: 899S-906S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/79.5.899S
4. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label. 2019. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/the-basics-of-the-nutrition-facts-label (Accessed 2020-20-5)
5. American Heart Association (AHA). Dietary Fats. 2014. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/dietary-fats (Accessed 2020-19-5)
6. American Heart Association (AHA). Control Your Cholesterol. 2017. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol (Accessed 2020-19-5)
7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Interactive Nutrition Facts Label. 2020.https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/interactivenutritionfactslabel/protein.cfm (Accessed 2020-20-5)
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