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How to Read Nutrition Labels

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, per serving, how much of certain nutrients 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, the nutrition facts labels have 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. 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 of the entire package.
  • 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 Percent 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 percent daily value (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 2,000 Kcal diet.

  • Low is 5% or less; aim low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugar (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 (8 ounces) 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, and cell formation.

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 of the nutrition facts label, vitamin A and C were replaced by 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 that usually don’t get enough of; 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 will have an ingredient list and the ingredients 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 two 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 that are carefully tailored by a marketing team and are focused on selling you a product, not to inform you 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, pick foods that don’t need a label at all!

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