Do you typically read the nutrition facts labels when choosing foods for yourself or your family? Do you spend the extra time to flip over the package to get to the label? Where do you start? What do the numbers mean? How can you know if it is a nutritious choice?
When teaching classes in the community or working with clients, the Let’s Move! STL registered dietitians meet many people who don’t know how to use the information on the nutrition facts label. It is a skill people are expected to understand but often don’t get the guidance needed to use it! Once you know how to use it, the nutrition facts label can be a vital tool in making healthy decisions for your family.
This month, we’re here to teach you nutrition label reading 101 so that you can take advantage of the tools at your fingertips and so you can be prepared for the changes coming in 2020!
What is the nutrition facts label?
The nutrition facts label is required on packaged foods to let people know what nutrients the
food provides. The label is required so that we can make healthy and informed decisions and to be able to find options that are packed with nutrients.
Where do you start? The first place to look on the label is the serving size and the number of servings per package. The serving size indicates that the rest of the information on the label applies to the specified serving size. For example, if the serving size is one cup and you eat one cup, then the information on the label stays the same. However, if you eat two cups, then you would need to double all of the information on the rest of the label.
Next, you will move on to look at the total calories in the specified serving size. As we have discussed in previous blogs, calories are a measure of the amount of energy you get from eating that serving size. Your calorie needs will differ based on many different things such as age, gender, activity level, etc. It is important to make sure we take in the amount of energy our bodies need, not too much, not too little.
You may remember that we shared the differences between fats here. For review, fat is used to provide structure to cell walls, insulate our bodies, promote brain development and function, and transports some vitamins throughout our body. However, we want to limit fats like saturated and trans fats, while getting enough of fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Saturated and trans fats are typically found on a nutrition facts label, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are often not listed. Saturated fat and trans fat are linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
On a label, a low source is considered 5% Daily Value (DV) or less. A high source is considered 20% DV or more. This rule of thumb will apply for other nutrients on the label as well.
Sodium is a mineral that helps to regulate fluid balance in your cells. It plays a large role in controlling blood pressure as well. To decrease your blood pressure, be sure to limit your sodium or salt intake to 2300 mg per day. For more information on sodium, take a look here.
We suggest the same rule as previously mentioned for fats: a food low in sodium will be 5% DV or less and a food high in sodium will be 20% DV or more.
Keep in mind that these rules apply per serving. So if we eat 2 cups of canned soup that has 20% DV sodium per serving and the serving size is 1 cup of soup, then we are eating almost 40% DV in sodium. This would be sending us way over on our recommended amount of sodium for that meal.
Carbohydrates are our bodies’ first choice as an energy source. They are very important for an overall healthy and functioning body. The nutrition label breaks down carbohydrates into three categories: total carbohydrate, fiber, and sugar. Total carbohydrate includes all the carbohydrates in that serving (this includes fiber and sugar).
Natural sugars are those already present in foods such as fruit, dairy, and even some vegetables. Foods that contain natural sugars also provide important vitamins and minerals and other nutrients that help our bodies function.
Added sugar is sugar or sugar products, such as syrups that are added into foods during processing or added in baking or cooking. The downfall of added sugar is that it contains little to no other beneficial nutrients like vitamins or minerals.
You can’t tell the difference between natural sugars and added sugars on the current nutrition facts label. In 2020, the new nutrition facts label will identify the amount of added sugars. More on this later.
It is recommended that we decrease the amount of added sugars we eat or drink because they have a lot of calories and are low in nutrients. If you want to know more about added sugars, we have written blogs on added sugars here and artificial sweeteners here and here.
Proteins are an important nutrient found throughout our bodies to help build muscle and tissues and act as an enzyme in many chemical functions in the body. Protein needs will vary from person to person based on many different factors. Because of this, there is no percentage Daily Value for protein required on the label. We recommend eating moderate portions of lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, plus beans and peas, peanut butter, seeds and soy products to meet your individual protein requirements. Find out your individual protein requirements by working with a registered dietitian.
Vitamins & Minerals
To maintain good health, we need to make sure that we are getting enough vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, etc. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve our health and reduce the risk of some diseases and other conditions. These nutrients are listed at the bottom of the nutrition facts label. Again, aim for 20% DV or more of these nutrients to make sure your body is getting what it needs.
The New Label
Now that you have a solid understanding of the original nutrition facts label, we want to talk about the new label regulations set for January 1, 2020. The updated label is designed to be more user-friendly and reflect the latest evidence-based guidelines.
The nutrition facts label is a very useful tool to make informed food choices for your health and wellbeing, that is if you know what the information means for you. The new nutrition facts label aims to make these decisions even easier with updates based on new research and a user-friendly design
Easier label reading means faster decision making. Your time is valuable! No more lengthy trips to the grocery store reading label after label. Let the nutrition label guide and empower your nutrition decisions. If you have questions about the updates or labeling, ask away in our Ask The Dietitian page!
Images from: FDA