How To Read A Food Label
Last week we covered navigating the grocery store and how to best go about that to stay on track with our health and wellness goals. This week I want to help you learn how to decipher the black and white box aka a nutritional food label on the back of our food boxes. Learning how to read a food label in the grocery store as we are shopping is crucial to helping us make wise decisions that align with our goals.
While I think most of us could recognize a food label, I am not sure that we all know how to read and interpret one. Nutritional food labels can be confusing at best and misleading at worst. It’s important to know how to read a food label so that we can make educated and wise choices when it comes to the food we are nourishing our bodies with. I want to break down this little black and white box so that the next time you head to the grocery store or pull something out of your pantry, you can read it, understand it, and be empowered to make healthier choices. Knowing how to properly read a food label can not only help us to limit nutrients like unhealthy fats (saturated and trans), but also give us an insight into increasing nutrients that we often do not consume enough of such as dietary fiber and calcium.
The purpose of a nutrition food label is to help consumers make quick, informed decisions when it comes to food. A nutrition label can help educate us to make healthier food choices based on the information provided.
So, what are the key components to a food label? Every food label provides the following information (from the top of the label to the bottom)- serving size, calories, nutrients (macro and micronutrients), % DV (daily value), and a listing of each ingredient. Now- let’s break it down further and discuss each of these areas of a nutrition food label.
SERVING SIZE: The serving size is the amount that people typically eat at one time. This information is critical to how we read and interpret the remainder of the information below on the food label. The nutrition facts and information on each label are based on one serving size. For example, if the serving size is one cup and you consume two cups, you then need to double the calories consumed and double each of the other nutrients listed, as well as the % DV.
CALORIES: This area displays the total number of calories in a single serving. This number would need to be adjusted if you eat more or less of the serving size. The calories listed can help us manage our weight as calories are the measure of the amount of energy you get from one serving of that food. As a general rule of thumb, a food that contains 40 or less calories is a low-calorie food, a food with 100 calories is moderate, and a food containing 400 calories or more is a high caloric food. This guide is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
MACRONUTRIENTS: Macronutrients include carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
Carbohydrates- Carbohydrates are measured in grams on a nutrition label. Sugar, starch, and dietary fiber make up the total grams of carbs on the label. Fiber is a healthy nutrient that we want to aim to get 100% of the DV. Choose foods that have at least 2-4 grams of fiber per serving. It’s important to watch our sugar consumption as foods with added sugars add calories but do not provide essential nutritional value. Read the ingredient list to make sure added sugars are not in the first few ingredients. Sugar comes in many different names so be on the lookout for these words- sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, and fructose.
Fat- When looking at the fat content on a food label, we want to pay attention specifically to the amount of saturated fat and trans fat. Trans fats raise bad cholesterol and lowers our good cholesterol, therefore we want to choose foods with 1 gram or less of trans fat. We also want to choose foods low in saturated fat to help prevent heart disease.
Protein- Protein is an essential nutrient used by our body. Food labels generally do not provide a % DV for protein, so use the grams listed as a guide. Each gram of protein provides 4 calories. I typically encourage my clients to aim for 20-30 grams of protein per meal and around 10 grams for snacks.
MICRONUTRIENTS: Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals, which are found in the lower section of a nutritional food label. Most Americans do not get enough fiber, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Vitamin A, calcium, and iron in their diets. When reading a food label, we want to be sure to get enough of these essential nutrients. Aim for a higher % DV (daily value) for nutrients like Vitamin A, C, D, calcium, and iron.
Sodium- Sodium also known as salt, is one of the micronutrients that we need to be really watchful of. Most sodium in the American diet is hidden in packaged, processed foods, which is why we need to know how to read this portion of the food label. Look for 140 mg or less of sodium per serving. The daily recommended allowance for sodium is 2,300 mg but more ideally we should aim for around 1,500 mg of sodium per day for adults.
% DAILY VALUE: This percentage is based on the daily value recommendations for key nutrients based on a 2,000 calorie diet by public health experts. The percent DV that you see on a food label is for the entire day, not just one meal or snack. For example, a food that has a 5% DV of fat provides 5% of the total fat a person should consume when eating 2,000 calories a day. A low % DV is 5% or less. We want to aim for low DV % in saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. A high % DV is 20% or more. We want to aim for higher % DV in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
INGREDIENT LIST: Any food that contains more than one ingredient, must list out each ingredient on the label. Ingredients are listed with the largest amounts first and in descending order by weight or amount used in the food item. The fewer the ingredients, the better. Another rule of thumb I like to go by when choosing foods is whether or not I am able to pronounce the ingredients listed. If I cannot pronounce certain ingredients or I don’t out rightly know what they are, I likely don’t want to be putting it into my body. Also- if you see any sugars listed in the first 3-5 ingredients, it’s best to leave it on the shelf and find a healthier option. A few other tips when it comes to reading ingredient lists- steer clear of bleached, white flour and words like fortified and enriched flour as these grains are refined and more heavily processed. Look for words like whole, sprouted, rolled, and stone ground. These are all unrefined, whole grains which are a much healthier option.
There is one way we can avoid having to read a food label and that is to choose foods that do not have a food label- fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. We should aim to eat more fresh, whole foods that are not processed but I know there are times when we cannot avoid eating something that is packaged. I hope this post educated you on how to properly interpret a food label so that you feel empowered the next time you are at the grocery store so you can fill your cart with the healthiest choices.
Certified Health & Wellness Coach, Certified Personal Trainer