We’re all motivated to eat well but it is often difficult, if not impossible, to understand exactly what we’re consuming. That’s why all packaged foods are required by the FDA to display nutrition labels. This allows consumers a way to delineate the exact composition of what’s inside. A couple of years ago, the FDA revamped food labels, making them more transparent in defining what foods contain and serving sizes. The deadline to adhere to these new guidelines just passed in June 2018. Even so, it can be daunting to figure out what they mean and how they’re meant to be read. Now that they all have to be uniform, let’s work our way through one, top to bottom, to see what they tell us, and reveiw what we should check while grocery shopping.
As mentioned before, portion/serving size is one of the most notable ways to make, or break a diet. One bag of popcorn, for example, contains three servings, but most people dive into it as though it is only one portion. For this reason, one of the main changes to food labels was to highlight how many servings are in each package, and the calorie count for each serving.
Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, ie the number of grams. The size of the serving influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. Make note of the serving size and how many servings there are in the food package. Being mindful of how many portions you consume (i.e.: 1/2 serving, 1 serving, or more), will help you keep track of caloric intake. Remember, if you eat two servings, that doubles the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the % Daily Values as shown in the sample label. Just like the popcorn, you may be shocked at how the ratio of serving size compares to the actual caloric intake.
Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of food. According to the FDA, “Many Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for a number of necessary nutrients. The calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight (i.e., gain, lose, or maintain.)” In general when considering portion size, the FDA states that 40 calories is low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 calories is considered high. This guideline is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Most people may not know how many calories they consume in a day. The % Daily Value (%DV) is a basic frame of reference whether you consume more or less than 2,000 calories. The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. A few nutrients, like trans fat, do not have a %DV because none is recommended. The label calculates the %DV for you and helps to interpret the numbers (grams and milligrams) by putting them all on the same scale for the day (0-100% DV). The %DV column doesn’t add up to 100%. Instead, each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirements for that particular nutrient (for a 2,000 calorie diet). This way you can tell high from low and know which nutrients contribute a lot, or a little, to your daily recommended allowance regardless of your exact caloric needs.
Next on the label is %DV for each nutritional component (like fat, protein, sugars, etc). These percentages are based off of a diet consisting of 2,000 daily calories.
The first category includes the Total Fat in the item, broken down into saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. The goal is to consume between 20-35% of calories from all fats (speak to your provider about what is best for you). No more than 10% should be from saturated fats, and trans fats should provide no more than 1% (if even that) of total calories. According to the FDA, “the intake of trans fat [should be] as low as possible by limiting foods containing partially hydrogenated oils (a source of artificial trans fat). Eating foods with even small amounts of trans fat can add up to a significant intake over time.” Learn in more detail about the difference between dietary fats here.
For example, look at the amount of total fat in one serving of a sample food. Say it’s 18% DV, this may not sound like a large contribution to your fat limit of 100% DV. But, what if you ate two servings? You would double that amount, now making it 36% of your daily allowance for Total Fat, all from just one food! That amount leaves you with only 64% of your fat allowance for all of the other foods you eat that day, snacks and drinks included.
The Mayo Clinic also provides a detailed overview on how to determine how many grams of fat should be consumed based on specific caloric intake, which is helpful considering food labels often use grams as the measurement.
The next section measures total Cholesterol. The human body naturally produces cholesterol in the liver and intestines in order to build cells and some hormones, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be mindful of intake. Most experts agree, it is important to limit the daily intake of saturated fats that can contribute to an accumulation of LDL (bad cholesterol). Daily intake of cholesterol should ideally be around 200 milligrams, or less. You can read more about how foods impact general health here.
Sodium follows on the label and is definitely something be to check when purchasing any packaged item. According to the American Heart Association, 75% of the sodium Americans consume comes from “processed, prepackaged and restaurant foods- not from the salt shaker.” The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that although the recommend amount of sodium is 2,300 milligrams, the target is truly more like 1,500 mgs for heart health and improved blood pressure. Sodium has the potential to raise blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. Believe it or not, just one teaspoon of salt provides that day’s worth.
If you’re over 51 years old, African-American, or if you have high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, or diabetes, the recommendation is also no more than 1,500 mg. If you fall into this category, you’re typically considered more “salt sensitive,” meaning that your blood pressure is more greatly affected by the sodium you eat. About 70% of Americans are considered to be “salt sensitive”.
Overall, the goal is to obtain between 45-65% of daily calories from Carbohydrates. The carbohydrates section on food labels is important because of the update to include “added sugars”. This is a vital detail when considering the impact excess sugar can have on general well-being. Too much sugar is tied to Type-2 Diabetes and obesity, among other health issues. Added sugars (compared to natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables) are often found in soft drinks, processed foods, and baked foods. But, some sources may be surprising.
Considering the recommended maximum for sugar intake, per the American Heart Association, is 20 grams for women, and 36 grams for men, the hidden sources shown above are a considerable amount of that allowance. Throughout a day, Americans, on average, consume 82 grams a day, which is 1/5 of a pound!
Protein is beneficial for many bodily functions including providing energy, blood clotting, building muscles and hormones, and also moving other nutrients through the body. The guideline, according to Harvard Medical School is .36 grams, per pound of weight. So, for the average woman weighing 168 lbs, that would be roughly 61 grams of protein a day. But, ask your healthcare provider because certain conditions, such a renal issues, necessitate a low protein intake.
The next section lists essential vitamins and minerals contained in the food item. Food labels were updated to reflect the percentage value of these as well.
Food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients in the food on the label. This section is last in the food label. The ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts.
While it seems straight-forward, the list of ingredients can also be tricky. The image below shows all the different names for “added sugars.” It is one example of how food labels still have room for improvement- surely most people don’t know the wide variety of names for “sugar”.
Food manufacturers are also now required to state if foods contain the most common allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
Educating yourself about what you are consuming is the only way to guarantee healthy eating and maintaining a healthy weight. Knowing how to read food labels is a great start.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also published a helpful overview of food labels that you can take to the grocery store for reference.
Supplemental information provided by:
- The Food and Drug Administration: https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/trans-fat.html
- The Mayo Clinic: https://www.livestrong.com/article/403487-can-you-tell-if-you-have-high-cholesterol-by-an-eye-exam/
- The American Heart Association-Sodium: https://sodiumbreakup.heart.org/how_much_sodium_should_i_eat?utm_source=SRI&utm_medium=HeartOrg&utm_term=Website&utm_content=SodiumAndSalt&utm_campaign=SodiumBreakup
- The American Heart Association-Sugar: https://draxe.com/how-many-grams-of-sugar-per-day/
- Harvard Medical School: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096