When trying to make informed decisions about what we are eating, we must always look at the nutrition facts on the packaging to see what is contained in a product and what our body will get out of it. When you want to know if a product contains soy, or when you want to know the sugar content in a beverage, all this information will be offered under the nutrition facts panel. Since this is the go to spot for most of your product inquiries, it is important to know how to decipher the nutrition facts and understand what they are really saying.
Nutrition Facts labels are be broken down into 5 basic sections, not including the ingredient lists.
1. The first section tells you the serving size as well as servings per container. Sections 2-5 are then all based on amounts per that serving size. This is very important because more often than not the listed serving size will vary from what you actually consume. For example, a can of soda will have a serving size of half a can, but are you going to only drink half a can of soda? Probably not, in which case you will need to double all the listed nutrient amounts in order to get an accurate count of what you are consuming.
2. This section tells you how many calories are in a product and how many of those calories come from fat. Again keep in mind the serving size. If a serving size is ⅔ a cup, and you consume 1 full cup, the amount of calories consumed will be higher.
3. Section three describes the nutrients that should be limited in your diet: saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. Notice that only saturated and trans fats are listed here, not monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. This is because unsaturated fats are good healthy fats that our body needs to function properly. You will also notice that percentages are now shown to the right of each nutrient. These percentages are based off the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) published by the Institute of Medicine, which establish what amount of nutrients are appropriate for our daily consumption. These are discussed more in section 5.
4. Listed here are the nutrients that we typically need more of: dietary fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. The exception here is sugar, which is listed in this section because along with dietary fiber it makes up the total carbohydrates in a product. Unlike dietary fiber however, you want to limit your sugar intake. There are natural sugars in most foods remember, so here we are talking mainly about added sugars from cane sugar, beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, even honey or agave.
5. The last section is a footnote that focuses specifically on the Percent Daily Values mentioned earlier. The information shown here is based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. This is very important, as very few of us consume only 2,000 calories a day. Depending on your age, height, gender, activity level you may need to consume more or less than 2,000 calories a day. And if you are trying to lose or gain weight, your calories will vary even more. To find out a basic estimate for your personal calorie needs, click here. Also in this section you will see a comparison of DRI recommendations based on both a 2,000 calorie and a 2,500 calorie diet. This is a good quick reference for figuring out how much of a nutrient you should be consuming. As a guide, if you want to consume less of a nutrient (such as saturated fat or sodium), choose foods with a lower % DV- 5 percent or less. If you want to consume more of a nutrient, such as fiber, seek foods with a higher % DV- 20 % or more.
Separate from the nutrition facts, but equally important, is the ingredient list. Here is where you can find what foods are actually in a product. The tricky part can be deciphering what some of these foods are and how much of them are in that package. The two main things to keep in mind when reading ingredient lists are (1) the order and (2) multiple names being used for the same product.
Order: Ingredients are always listed from greatest quantity to least. Hint, if sugar is listed first, you probably don’t want it. Keep in mind that this list can be skewed; if you look at the label on salsa, tomatoes will obviously be listed first, but it could still contain a lot of sugar, salt, preservatives and additives. Hydrogenated fat could be listed last, but could still be in a higher quantity than desired.
Ingredient Names: Certain ingredients go by more than one name, which can make it difficult if you are trying to limit certain ones in your diet. Three big ones are sodium, sugar and trans fat. Sodium can be listed as salt, sodium benzoate, disodium, sodium nitrite or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Sugar can be in the form of cane sugar, beet sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, fructose, agave or honey. Trans fats are usually listed as hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil. It can take time to really understand all of these, so if you are not sure what a word is on a food label, look it up!
Nutrition labels and ingredient lists may not reveal everything about a product from an ethical standpoint: how the farm workers are being treated, if they are using proper crop rotation, if they are giving back to their community, etc. However, for an instant decision in that grocery aisle when trying to buy the best product, what these labels can give you a is good base of understanding and a comparison between that product and its competitors.
For more detailed information on food labeling and nutrition facts, here is a link to the FDA Labeling & Nutrition Page: http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm#see1
My FD name is Kitchen Ninja (Kinja). I am from Auburn, AL. I graduated from Johnson & Wales University with a Bachelors in Culinary Nutrition. I am currently Sous Chef at Linger in Denver. My passion is creating nutritious food for others and spreading knowledge of health through food and cooking.