Decoding your food label

6 minReading time

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.

Nutrition facts panel

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.

Understanding serving size

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

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 and their % Daily Values

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:

  • Total fat, saturated fat, trans fat and unsaturated fats. Eating the right amount of dietary fat can be an essential part of an overall healthy diet. However, not all fats are created equal. Saturated fats and trans fats raise LDL cholesterol levels (which have been associated with increased risk for heart disease), while monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can lower LDL cholesterol levels (5). Aim for foods low in saturated fat- 5% or less of the %DV (4)- and that contain 0g of trans fats.
  • Dietary cholesterol. Your body needs cholesterol for certain important cell functions, which is made by the liver (6). The remainder of cholesterol comes from dietary sources. Consuming too much dietary cholesterol can pose potential health problems; aim for foods low in dietary cholesterol or 5% or less of the %DV
  • Sodium. Eating too much sodium is associated with an increased risk of developing certain health conditions (2). Choose foods that are lower in sodium and aim for less than 2,300 mg sodium per day (AHA).
  • Total carbohydrates and dietary fiber. Choosing foods rich in whole grains and dietary fiber are essential to a healthy diet. Fiber can be beneficial in maintaining good health and aids in digestion by promoting regularity. Foods that contain 20%DV of dietary fiber can be considered “high fiber” (2).
  • Total sugar and added sugar. Total sugars include sugars naturally present in foods such as fruit and milk as well as any added sugars that are added during the processing of foods such as table sugar (2). The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming no more than 10% of daily calories from added sugars, as diets high in calories from added sugars can make it difficult to meet daily recommended levels of important nutrients while staying within calorie limits (2).
  • Protein. Protein is an essential nutrient needed to provide calories and to support the growth and development of the cells in the body (7). Protein generally has no %DV listed on the label, so use the number of grams as a guide to ensure you are consuming enough protein for your needs.
  • Vitamins and minerals. The human body needs the right “mix” of nutrients for good health. Consuming the recommended daily amounts of vitamins and minerals helps support many important body processes (7).

Ingredient list

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:

  • Sugar: can be listed as sucrose, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, and dehydrated cane juice, to name a few
  • Sodium: can be listed as salt, sodium benzoate, disodium or monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrite, and others
  • Trans fats: even though the nutrition facts may say “0 g of trans fat”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that. If an ingredient list contains partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil, then it is likely that your food still contains a trace amount (0.5g or less) of trans fat.

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.


References

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)

With Lifesum, tracking your healthy habits (and the not so healthy ones) becomes a breeze. We’ll help you pick the right food, and eat the right portion sizes, to reach your personal health goals.

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