How To Read Food Labels

Regardless of where you fall on the clean eating spectrum, chances are good that you’ve heard the message: read food labels! When it comes to your health, it’s not about becoming a label reader or being an “expert” on labels. It’s about being informed so you know what you’re putting inside your body and what the impact could be.

With ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, MSG, and hydrogenated vegetable oil lurking in many different brands of yogurt or processed foods like cookies, it’s no wonder so many people are looking for cleaner options.

One thing is for sure; getting the right food on the table is not what you want to compromise on especially if you are looking to maintain the right shape, size, and health.

Knowing how to read food labels is not only important in helping you get around your shopping quickly, but it helps you build discipline when it comes to getting the right diet every time. Food labels could have a whole lot of information but what is of greater importance is the nutrition information panel.

Serving Size

The Nutrition Facts label should show you the number of servings per package and the serving size. Serving sizes are standardized to make comparisons between foods easier; they are provided either in standard units (cups or pieces) or in metric units, i.e., grams (g). 

These numbers show the amount of food or drinks consumed on average, not a recommendation for how much to eat or drink.

Please be aware that all the nutrient amounts listed on the label, including calories and fat content, are based on the serving size.

Keep an eye on the food package’s serving size, especially how many servings are included. 

Calories

The amount of energy derived from consuming a serving of a given food is measured in calories. If you want to reach or maintain healthy body weight, you must balance your calorie intake and your body’s energy expenditure with the number of calories you consume and drink.

 If you’re trying to lose weight, knowing how many calories one serving contains is crucial. What is the value of the serving size? Have you calculated the calories per serving or do you have a good calorie to serving size ratio?

It is recommended that you consume 2,000 calories a day as a general rule of thumb for nutrition. A person’s calorie needs are based on many factors including age, gender, height, weight, exercise level, and calorie requirements for daily living.

Nutrients

This section contains information on some of the most important nutrients to your health. If you’re looking for specific nutrients you need to gain more of the nutritional needs, you can use the nutrition label to support your personal dietary needs to find food that contains more of those nutrients and fewer of the ones you may wish to limit.

It is important to reduce your intake of the following nutrients:

Sodium: The sodium content must be 140 mg or less in each serving to qualify as low sodium. AHA(American Heart Association) recommends that seniors, African Americans, and those with high blood pressure consume only 1,500 milligrams or less of sodium per day.

Other adults need to aim for a daily intake not exceeding 2,300 mg. On the other hand, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020 recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day. Adults consume an average of over 3,400 mg of sodium per day, according to these guidelines.

Added Sugars: Sugars added to food in the processing stage (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), syrups and honey, and sugar from concentrated fruit or vegetable juice are included in the Added Sugar category.

Insufficient levels of important nutrients can be caused by diets high in added sugars, which can make meeting your daily nutrient requirements challenging while adhering to calorie limits.

When Added Sugars are preceded by “includes,” it indicates that the number of grams of Total Sugars includes Added Sugars.

Saturated fat: The saturated fats in food are typically solid at room temperature. Animal products such as meats and dairy products, as well as coconut and palm oils, contain these fats. Saturated fat keeps food from going rancid and tasting bad. The percentage of calories from saturated fat should not exceed 5% to 10%.

Carbohydrates: Food labels list the total carbohydrates, including sugar, complex carbs, and fiber, all of which may affect blood sugar levels. The total amount of carbohydrates expressed in grams will give you an idea of the carbohydrate content of the food. You should check with your doctor about the amount of carbs you should consume each meal if you have diabetes. 

The Percent Daily Value (%DV)

Fruit stickers and a nutrition label hanging on a rope

For each food, % Daily Value indicates the percentage of each nutrient in that serving. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is a standard amount of nutrients that must be consumed or not exceeded each day, expressed in grams, milligrams, or micrograms.

Use the Percent Daily Values as a guide

  • Consider percent Daily Value (DV) when choosing which foods to include in your meals. Percent DV refers to a full day’s worth of consumption – not just one meal or snack. Average daily values are calculated based on 2,000 calories a day. If you consume 2,000 calories per day, a 5% DV of fat provides 5% of the total fat you should consume.
  • Depending on your body’s needs, you may need more or fewer than 2,000 calories per day. In some cases, you may require either more or less than a 100% Daily Value (DV) for a particular nutrient.
  • Reduce saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium to 5% or less.
  • Ideally, your vitamin, mineral, and fiber intake should be 20% or more.

Product Dates

A food can display one of three types of product dates:

  • Sell By: Manufacturers give stores a recommended “sell by” date for foods like meat, poultry, eggs, and milk products, so buyers should purchase these items before then.
  • Use By: This refers to the date a portion of food is most likely to be at its best and most nutritious – after this date, some foods are likely to be stale or less tasty than they should be.
  • Best if used by: indicates when the food is at its peak. There is no suggested purchase date for the food on the label.

Products do not need to bear safety dates, and they are not mandated by federal regulations, except for infant formula. Manufacturers are free to add them voluntarily.

You could use the nutrition information panel contained in the food labels to satisfy various uses. First, it could help you identify foods with less saturated fats, low sugar levels, and no added salt. These are important because they will help you healthily watch your weight.

It could also help you establish the amount of serving per particular nutrient, which could help you see if it is worth the consumption in terms of kilojoules. If you are looking to lose weight, this could come in handy.

The food to choose from could be among the five food groups or simply a discretionary one that needs to be consumed in small proportions once in a while or avoided entirely.

A Nutrition Guide could help identify foods within the five group choices and discretionary ones.

With this information, you can now use the nutrition information label to establish the right foods to help you maintain your weight. Discretionary foods, for example, offer fewer nutrients but add to the kilojoules count.

Some food labels also could advise you regarding a single serving but the packet could be having more than a single serving. It is, therefore for you to analyze the nutrition information panel clearly before making any consumption.

The Ingredient List

Another place to look for values is the Ingredient List. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Ingredients with the highest amount weight will be listed first and those with less weight will be listed last.

The normal ingredient list doesn’t include the value of each component’s nutrition, but this could also help with what you want to take in and what you don’t.

This again could also be used to your advantage if you are looking to maintain good health or probably shed some weight.

Nutrition Content Claims

Some food labels will come with nutrition claims like “low fat, high fiber, etc.” While you might be tempted to go by their word, you definitely want to make a cross-check with the nutrition information panel.

Low fat, for example, could not necessarily mean low amounts of kilojoules, but it could mean that compared to other similar products, it could have a much lower fat content than theirs. In this case, therefore, you would want to act prudently by not taking any chances.

Health Claims

Unlike nutrition claims that link the level of nutrition of a particular ingredient, health claims will link up the health benefit of an ingredient to the ingredient itself.

An example would be something like Vitamin A and the benefit could be “improves vision” or calcium which “strengthens bones”. All these are benefits accruing to these nutrients and therefore such a claim is meant to help a consumer to make a decision when purchasing.

According to research, health claims on the front of a package make consumers believe that a product is healthier than one without such claims, thus influencing purchasing decisions.

It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to lie on these labels, using health claims that are misleading and sometimes false.

All in all, the ease of how to read food labels builds with time. Most people have made it a habit and would, therefore, navigate through a shelf of different products and land their hands on the right ones in just a few minutes. That could be you.