Understanding Food Labels can be a challenge, we will help you decipher the information. Food companies spend millions of dollars on food packaging trying to convincing consumers to buy their products. Sometimes they use terms on their packaging that they know consumers are looking for when they read food labels like “whole grain” or “natural”– some of these terms are not regulated and therefore don’t mean much to us.
The best way to know for sure what is in the food you are buying is to read the nutrition facts label.
How to read food labels:
By learning how to read the nutrition facts label you will know exactly what you are buying and they can state whatever they want on the front- you will know the truth! The below recommendations are based on general, healthy population. If you have been diagnosed with any disease state your Registered Dietitian can help you read the label with your condition in mind.
Understanding Food Labels
This is a great place to start. The amount listed (here ¾ cup) goes with the facts that come below it. For example with cereal many people will simply fill their bowl which might hold 3 cups- 4 times the serving size on this box. Therefore, everything would need to be multiplied (calories, sodium, carbohydrates etc) by 4. The serving size is usually a good place to begin, if you are still hungry you can always get more or add another food item.
Many people are accustomed to looking at calories, but calories don’t tell the whole story. 200 calories can look many different ways. It is really what is making up those calories that impacts your health.
% Daily value
This tells you how much of the recommended amount of each nutrient is in one serving of the food. The % daily value is based on a sample diet of 2,000 calories a day. This is not specific to the person so I don’t recommend using it as it is not very helpful for most people.
Just like calories total fat does not tell me too much about the quality of the product since there are heart healthy fats as well as fats that can contribute to high cholesterol like saturated fat. For saturated fat the recommendation is to keep your intake under 10% of your daily calories which might be somewhere between 15-25g per day. Trans fats also contribute to high cholesterol and should be kept at 0g. Unsaturated fats are the heart healthy fats. They are not always listed but can be figured out by subtracting the saturated and trans fat from the total fat.
Cholesterol in foods actually does not impact our cholesterol as much as saturated fat so this does not need to be focused on as much.
Does not need to be monitored unless suffering from impaired kidney function.
The general recommendation is to keep sodium intake to under 2,300mg per day (this is about equal to just one teaspoon!). Most of our sodium intake comes from processed foods as opposed to the salt we might add in cooking. Low sodium foods include items under 140mg of sodium. Keeping meals under 500 mg of sodium will help keep the daily amount under 2,300 mg.
Carbohydrates are often monitored in those diagnosed with Diabetes, PreDiabetes, or PCOS. These vary by person so will have to be individualized by your Registered Dietitian. Typically total carbohydrates take up about 50-65% of daily calories.
More Info on Understanding Food Labels
Dietary fiber has multiple benefits. Fiber helps to lower cholesterol, control blood sugars, regulate digestion and produce feelings of satiety and therefore aids in maintaining a healthy weight. The recommendation for fiber intake per day ranges from 25-35g per day. If you are not used to following a high fiber diet, do so slowly! Increasing your fiber intake suddenly may cause digestive upset (diarrhea and bloating). We get fiber from whole grains (cereal, breads, pastas, rice) as well as fruits, vegetables and beans. A good source of fiber is typically a product with at least 3-4g of fiber per serving.
Sugars listed on the food label do not include everything that impacts blood sugars so those with Diabetes, Pre-diabetes or PCOS refer to total carbohydrates. Currently the sugars section is not only the “added sugar” so it will also include sugars from fruit or milk ingredients. When looking at a product it is better to evaluate the ingredients list for sugar.
Protein needs vary from person to person and protein content will vary by the type of product you are looking at. Protein typically takes up about 15-20% of the daily calories. This is also determined on an individual basis so check with your Registered Dietitian for your protein needs.
Take a look at the ingredients and make sure you can pronounce or identify them. Generally a smaller ingredient list would mean a less processed food. Ingredients are listed from highest concentration to smallest.
Nutrition for every condition
Our dietitians can help you read labels to help you manage your diabetes, heart disease, digestive difficulties, food allergies and more. Take a look at these links.
- 3 Tips for finding a diabetes friendly breakfast cereal
- 3 Ways to prevent heart disease
- Low FODMAP snacks
- Soy and nut-free products
If you do have a medical condition, it may be helpful to know these terms:
Understanding Food Labels for Medical Conditions:
If you do have a medical condition, it may be helpful to know these terms. For clarity about your special medical condition, please consult a registered dietitian.
- 3 g or less per serving
- 140 mg or less per serving
- 40 calories or less per serving
- less than 0.5 g per serving
- less than 0.5 g per serving
- one serving contains 10-19% daily value for that particular nutrient
Take a look at these nutrition facts labels and see what you think about these products? Would you purchase them? Yes or No?
Looking to better understand how your nutrition can help you feel better?
Take a look at our book Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating
And see information about how to navigate the grocery store. We also provide individual and group grocery store tours to help you take the stress out of food shopping.
If you would like more information on reading food labels or navigating the grocery store, please click here or call (301) 474-2499 to schedule and appointment today!
Dana uses her advanced training in functional nutrition and food sensitivities to help her clients love and trust food again as they heal from years of painful symptoms that have dominated their lives. Co-author of Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating and Cooking with Food Sensitivities Survival Guide.