Understanding nutrition labels is the quickest and easiest way to make informed decisions about any food item. Comparing similar foods and making healthier eating choices is much easier when you know what to look for on food labels. Here’s a quick rundown of the important elements of a “Nutrition Facts” label and how to decode them – without needing a degree in Nutrition!
Serving Size and Servings per Container
The serving size and servings per container values are typically located at the top of the label. The serving size is the designated amount of the food item that equals one serving. This value is usually given in familiar measurements such as ounces, grams, pieces or cups. The serving size (one serving) is the amount for which all calculations on the label are based. Servings per Container is simply the number of single servings that are in the package.
One of the most common mistakes people make when reading food labels is overlooking the serving size and servings per container numbers. Keep in mind that each nutritional value on the label is based on one serving. So if you eat two servings, the numbers on the label (including calories) double. Three servings, they triple – you get the picture. Just make sure you check out both serving size and number of servings per container, especially if you plan to eat an entire package of something. Your chance of overeating is way less if you do.
Calories and Calories from Fat
Also at the top of the label are the values for calories and calories from fat. The calories value is the total number of calories in one serving. Calories from fat equals the number of calories per serving that are only from fat (even the good ones).
Having these numbers together makes it easy to calculate the percentage of fat contained in a food item. For example, if total calories = 100 and the calories from fat = 50, you have a food that contains 50% fat. The math isn’t always going to be that simple, but you should be able to get a good ballpark estimate of the fat content fairly quickly. As a general rule for eating healthier, you should choose foods that contain 1/3 or less of their total calories from fat. Note: Don’t worry about small amounts of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats – they’re actually good for you!
Percent Daily Value (% DV)
The percent daily value (% DV) section tells you what percentage of the total recommended daily amount of each nutrient is in a single serving of food. For example, if the label lists 15% for fiber, it means that one serving provides 15% of the fiber you need each day. It’s worth noting that % DV’s are based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories for healthy adults. Even if you eat more or less than 2,000 calories, you can still use the % DV’s as a general guide.
A very practical use of % DV’s is that they give you a quick snapshot of whether a food product has a high or low amount of a particular nutrient. The rule of thumb is 20% DV or more is high and 5% DV or less is low. Be sure to look for lower % DV’s on nutrients you should limit (total fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol) and higher % DV’s on the good things (fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals). Note: Although there are no daily values set for sugars and trans fats, be sure to limit them – they’re both bad stuff!
A Quick Re-Cap on Understanding Nutrition Labels
• Start at the top with Serving Size and Servings per Container. Remember that all values on the label are based on one serving.
• Check the number of Calories and Calories from Fat. Try to choose foods that contain 1/3 or less of their total calories from fat. Don’t worry about small amounts of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats – they’re the good guys!
• Use the Percent Daily Values (% DV’s) to check the nutrients that you want more or less of. 5% DV or less is low and 20% DV or more is high.
• Try to limit these nutrients: total fat, saturated fat, trans fats, sodium, cholesterol and sugar.
• Get enough (at least 100% DV) of these nutrients: fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals (especially vitamins A & C, calcium and iron).
Whether you’re tracking every morsel of food that goes in your mouth, or just looking for a rough estimate of how nutritious a certain food is, you’ll need to become familiar with the information on nutrition labels. Knowing what you’re looking for on food labels is particularly important if you have certain health conditions (such as high blood pressure or diabetes) and need to follow a strict diet. Start practicing reading the nutrition labels on the foods you eat most often – you might end up being surprised!
I hope that helps,
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