Do you ever wonder if the food you’re eating is actually good for you or does it just appear to be good for you? Understanding how to read food labels can be confusing at first, but it is a necessary skill to have if you want to improve your overall health and live a healthy lifestyle. So let's start with the basics, what exactly are nutrition facts and ingredient lists?
The nutrition facts label can usually be found on the back or side of most packaged foods and beverages. It is required by the FDA and provides detailed information about a food's nutrient content, such as the amount of fat, sugar, sodium, and fiber it has. The nutrition facts label is important because it shows the amount and types of nutrients you’ll consume if you eat this food, and can help you achieve macronutrient balance and practice portion control. It should serve as your guide to making healthy choices when it comes to what you are eating and drinking.
The ingredient list can usually be found under the nutrition facts label. It is a list of every single ingredient present in your food or drink. Ingredients are listed in order of greatest to least. The ingredient list is just as important as the nutrition facts label as it can provide details that the nutrition facts label may not show, such as the quality and sources of the nutrients listed. The ingredient list can be especially important to pay attention to if you suffer from food allergies. It can reveal hidden fats, added sugars, and different types of grains and flours used.
How to read a nutrition facts label
The first thing you want to look at on your nutrition facts label is the serving size and the amount of servings in the whole package. Serving sizes are usually provided in “cups” or “pieces” for easier measuring, but sometimes it could be by weight, such as ounces or grams. After you establish what is considered one serving and how many servings are in the package, you then need to decide how many servings are suitable for you to consume. For example, the serving size of fit-flavors 2 Pack Chocolate Brownies is 1 brownie, which means that there are 2 servings in the whole container. So if you eat both brownies you are consuming 2 servings, and double the amount of nutrients listed for 1 brownie.
fit-flavors Chocolate Brownies nutrition facts label
Next you want to look at the calories. The amount of calories shows you how much energy you get from a serving of this particular food or beverage. The number of servings (or portion) you consume determines the amount of calories you actually eat. The calories you consume is the number of servings you eat multiplied by the calories per serving.
Then we move on to the nutrients. The first few nutrients listed are generally ones that we would like to limit: fat (saturated and trans), cholesterol, sugar, and sodium. Try to keep these nutrients low throughout the day as too much of them over time can potentially increase your risk of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and some cancers. Other nutrients are especially important for your health and you want to make sure you get adequate amounts of these each day. They usually include: calcium, fiber, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and iron.
Your macronutrients can also be found on the nutrition facts label: protein, fat, carbohydrates. You may want to pay attention to the amount of each based on what you plan to consume to reach your goals. If the label is for a full meal, you’ll likely want a balance of macronutrients so your body gets all the fuel sources to function at its best. If the food is part of a meal that you’ll pair with other things, you may be focused on just one of the macronutrient content levels. An example of this would be a packet of rice, which would contain primarily carbs and is something you could pair with a protein and vegetable to make a balanced meal.
In regards to fat and carbohydrates specifically, you’ll see a breakdown beneath the total. The total fat is the summation of unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats in the food. Unsaturated fats are good fats, saturated fats should be consumed in moderation, and trans fats should be limited as much as possible. The total carbohydrates come from a combination of fiber, sugar, and starch. Fiber and sugar are listed, and the total carbohydrates minus the sugar and fiber tells you the amount of starch.
Lastly, the section that is often overlooked or hard to understand is the Percent Daily Value (%DV). The %DV is a general guide to help you link nutrients from one serving to their contribution in your total daily diet. This can help you determine if a food is high or low in a specific nutrient. Generally if it has 5% or less daily value it is low in that nutrient, and if it has 20% or more it is high in that nutrient. Daily values are usually based on a 2,000 calorie diet so you may need to make adjustments to fit your personal calorie needs. Logging your food in an app such as My Fitness Pal can make it easier to see if you’re consuming the Daily Value for each nutrient over the course of a full day.
What to know when reading an ingredient list
Ingredients are listed by their relative amounts in the food or beverage that you are consuming. The first ingredient is the most prevalent and the last ingredient is in the smallest amount relative to the other ingredients. Ingredient lists can help you understand the quality and sources of the nutrients listed on the nutrition facts label.
Ingredient lists can get tricky because oftentimes ingredients such as sugar or salt can go by unfamiliar names. Salt can be referred to as sodium benzoate, disodium guanylate, monosodium glutamate, or himalayan sea salt, among other names. Sugar is another ingredient to watch out for. It also goes by names such as high fructose corn syrup, dehydrated cane juice, or barley malt syrup.
If you ever come across an ingredient that you’re unsure of, take the time to look it up. An important part of understanding the ingredient list is educating yourself and becoming familiar with some of these complex terms so that you can recognize them in the future. Keep in mind that a lot of manufacturers make ingredients like fats, sugars, and salts difficult to identify on nutrition labels. Try choosing foods that have whole, real foods listed as the first 3 ingredients.
Choosing healthy foods can be a challenge these days with all of the different products available, especially when ingredients come disguised with a multitude of different names. Knowing what to look for on the nutrition facts label and ingredients list can help you make more healthy and informed decisions, so you can reach your goals and live a healthy lifestyle. Using the information in combination from the nutrition facts label (to help you reach a balance of macronutrients and practice portion control) and the ingredient list (the quality of the food) will help you see results.
Learn more on this blog about misleading food claims on the front of a food package.