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How to Read Nutrition Labels

Nutrition Label Reading 101

You have seen it for more than 20 years in almost every packaged food and drink you’ve bought, eaten, and consumed. It’s so familiar that you pretend to understand each number displayed. But do you really know how to correctly read a nutrition label?

A nutrition label will tell you how much of some nutrients, per serving, are found in the food you are about to enjoy. Often, people just focus on the amount of calories or fat. But there is more relevant information that will tell you how nutritious (or not) your food is.

FYI, it has been changed recently so you will find two different versions passing around.

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From Top to Bottom

On the very top, you will find:

  • Serving size, which is the amount people typically eat at one time.
  • Servings per container, which, for marketing purposes, it’s usually half or less, per container.  You will have to multiply not only the calories, but also the amount of each nutrient displayed by the number of servings to really know the nutritional content.
  • Make your elementary teacher proud and calculate the number of calories per container without using your iPhone and that will give you a good idea if the food is worth eating or not. Four hundred calories per serving of a single food item is considered high calorie.


The High and Low of %Daily Values of Macronutrients

Macronutrients are the nutrients that your body cannot synthesize and needs in large amounts (i.e, single, double or triple digits in grams)  like carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and water.

Whether you are watching your fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbs, dietary fiber or protein intake, the %DV--not the actual amounts in grams– will be your guide. By definition, the %DV tells you how much of a nutrient is in one serving of food, based on a 2000 Kcal diet.

  • Low is 5% or less; aim low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar (the nutrients related to chronic diseases).
  • High is 20% or more; aim high in vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber (the health-related nutrients).

The % DV for protein is not required on the label, but to have a nice estimate, compare it to a high protein food like 1 cup (8oz.) of milk which has 8 grams of protein. If your food product has a similar amount, that’s a decent number.


A Note about Micronutrients

Micronutrients are also, nutrients that your body cannot synthesize (except for vitamin D and K), but needs smaller amounts (milligrams or micrograms) like vitamins and minerals. Both are needed to support many body processes like brain and heart function, blood sugar and pressure regulation, digestion, reproduction, cell formation, and many others.

The basic differences between vitamins and minerals are that vitamins are organic (have carbon molecules in their structure) and come from plants and animals (that eat plants). Minerals are inorganic (have simpler structures than vitamins) and come from soil and water.

In the new version, vitamin A  and C were replaced for vitamin D and potassium. According to recent food consumption surveys, it was revealed that Americans didn’t get enough of these micronutrients and they are related to an increased risk of chronic disease. Calcium and iron are the other micronutrients that are important to eat, but usually, we don’t get enough of them; therefore these are known as “nutrients of public health concern”.

  • Important: the higher %DV of micronutrients in your food product, the better.


Check the Ingredient List

A food product with one or more ingredients have an ingredient list and they are listed in order of weight or quantity. The first ingredient is the main one and is going to tell you what your food is made of. If your hazelnut chocolate spread has, as the first ingredient “sugar” and then “vegetable oil” … that means it is mostly made up of those 2 ingredients. It should be named “sugar and vegetable oil” spread, instead. Think twice about eating it. A good rule of thumb is to avoid foods that list sugar as their first ingredient; another golden rule is “the fewer the ingredients, the better.”

Make educated choices about the things you put into your body. Don’t trust the misleading front labels which are carefully tailored by a marketing team and are focused on selling you a product, not to inform about it. Choose “nutrient dense” food products, that is, foods and beverages with high %DV (20 or more) of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals.   Even better, prefer foods that don’t need a label at all!

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