How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label and What to Look for in the Ingredient List
Dakota Howe, B.S. in Food and Nutrition
At the grocery store in the bread aisle trying to decide what to buy, you are faced with two options that appear to be the same at first glance. However, when you turn the packages over to look at the nutrition information you realize that these two breads are in fact very different. Trying to make sense of a nutrition facts label can be confusing and a bit overwhelming, especially if you are unsure about what all the numbers, percentages and ingredients mean. Nobody wants to do mental math in the grocery store when trying to calculate how many grams of carbohydrates a serving of bread yields, compared to how many servings you actually plan on eating. It gets especially complicated when the two products that you are comparing do not have the same serving size. For example, one brand of bread may have a serving size in grams while the other brand is in ounces. Therefore, having a basic understanding of how to read a nutrition facts label and what to look for in the ingredient list is an important skill and can be extremely useful when trying to make healthy choices when purchasing food and drinks.
How to Read the Label
The first step in reading a nutrition facts label is to look at the serving size and servings per container; this is located at the top of the label. This is important because if you consume the entire container or package of something and there are two servings per container, then you must double all of the nutrients on the panel.
Next, look at the total calories per serving and the calories coming from fat. If a product contains 40 calories or less, it is considered a low calorie food; if it is between 100-200 calories it is considered a moderate calorie food and anything greater than 400 calories is considered to be a high calorie food1. Use these numbers as a guide when deciding which products to purchase and what their intended purposes are (i.e. snack, drink, protein bar etc.). But remember, not all calories are created equal and just because something is high in calories does not mean that it is bad for you. Nuts and seeds, for example, are a high calorie food because the majority of their calories come from fat. However, fats coming from nuts and seeds are the good kinds of fat that contribute towards an overall healthy diet. So, instead of counting calories, count nutrients and purchase products with simple, clean and wholesome ingredients that will nourish your body.
When looking at a nutrition facts label it is important to know which nutrients you should consume a limited amount of and which ones you should consume in larger quantities. Limit the amount of sugar, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium and look for products that provide an adequate amount of fiber, calcium, iron and vitamins.
Understanding the % Daily Value (DV)
The % DV can be found on the side of every nutrition facts label, but if you do not understand what it means then it is of no use. The % DV is regulated by the FDA and it can be found on all food and drink products. These numbers are based off of a standard 2,000 calorie diet and reflect the amount of nutrients that the average healthy individual should consume per day. The purpose of the % DV on the nutrition facts label is to serve as guideline for how much of a specific nutrient is in a given food. However, it is important to remember that individuals will require a different amount of each nutrient based on their height, weight, activity level, gender and individual health status. Nonetheless, the % DV can still be used as a good reference point. When looking at the % DV use to 5-20 rule; this rule states that 5% or less of a nutrient is considered to be low and 20% or more of a nutrient is considered to be high. Look for products with low amounts of unhealthy saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium and look for foods with high amounts of fiber, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C2.
You may notice that there is no % DV listed for trans fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, protein and sugar. This is because there is no specific daily limit set for these nutrients. Monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats from clean sources are the good kinds of fat, so foods containing these are healthy to consume in moderate amounts, such as avocados, salmon and olive oil. Unhealthy sources of fats such as highly processed baked goods and fried foods should be consumed in limited amounts, while trans fat is the one type fat that should be avoided at all costs possible. Protein does not have a set % DV because the recommendation varies from person to person depending on one’s height, weight and activity level3. Since there is no % DV for sugar, it is important to look at how many grams of sugar a product contains per serving. Remember, some foods may contain natural sugars but have no added sugars. Fruit and dairy products, for example, contain natural sugars but have no added sugars. However, the amount of natural sugars that a product contains will still appear on the nutrition facts label, which is one of the reasons that reading the ingredient list is so important. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), it is recommended that women consume no more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons) and that men consume no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) of added sugars per day4.
What to Look For in the Ingredient List
The ingredients list is one of the most important pieces of information on a nutrition facts label – no matter how good the nutrients of a product may seem, it means nothing if the ingredients to make that product are unhealthy. For example, a product can read “0 grams of trans fat” on the nutrition facts label, yet still contain trans fat as long as there is 0.5 grams or less per serving. You can be sure that you are not consuming products with any trans fat by reading the ingredient list and avoiding products that contain “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils.
Beware of hidden and added sugars in the ingredient listing. Anything that ends in “-ose” is a form of sugar such as maltose, dextrose, lactose, sucralose, fructose, xylose and ribose. Other forms of added sugar include, but are not limited to: corn syrup, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, cane juice, agave nectar and honey. Avoid frequent consumption of products with high amounts of added sugar. The calories coming from added sugars are empty calories, meaning that they do not provide the body with any nutritional value. Furthermore, consuming an excess amount of added sugar will spike insulin levels which can cause weight gain and can eventually lead to type II diabetes5.
Keep in mind that ingredients are written in descending order by weight from greatest to least. If sugar, for example, is the first ingredient listed, then you know right away that there is a high amount of added sugar in that particular product. Aim to purchase products that have as simple and as few ingredients as possible and limit products that have a long list of ingredients that you cannot pronounce.
Knowing what to look for and how to read a nutrition facts label can save a lot of time and hassle at the grocery store. When you break the label down into sections it becomes a lot simpler to understand and with practice you too will be able to pick out healthy options with just a glance.