How To Read Food Labels Like a Boss
The first step to making informed decisions while purchasing groceries is knowing how to read food labels. Food labels (aka nutrition labels) are at the heart of all food packaging at the grocery store. Without knowing how to read food labels, it is difficult to know what nutrients we are consuming and what nutrients we still need to consume.
- Food labels help smart decision making while grocery shopping
- Food labels have gone through vast changes since the 1990s
- Learning how to read food labels like a boss is as easy as 1,2,3
It’s likely everyone has general knowledge of how to read food labels, but it took me awhile to really understand what the food label on the back of my Cheez-Its box was telling me. So, I am breaking down each section of the food label. That way, everyone knows how to read food labels like a boss, and you can make more informed decisions while fueling your body.
History of Food Labels
Food labels were not mandatory for almost all packaged foods until the 1990’s. Up until that point, labeling regulations were loose and health claims were unsubstantiated.
In 2016, the FDA updated food label guidelines in hopes that the update would more accurately reflect scientific advances and knowledge about nutrition and would increase consumer access to knowledge necessary by means of increasing font sizes and bolding important information.
Additionally, the food labels worked to more accurately delegate serving sizes revolving around how much Americans actually eat and drink today, not how much Americans were eating and drinking in 1993.
Servings Per Container vs. Serving Size
Servings per container shows the total number of servings in the entire package/container.
In contrast, the serving size indicates the amount of food customarily eaten in one sitting. Contrary to popular belief, serving size is not a recommendation of how much to eat.
The nutrition facts listed are usually based off one serving size. However, some packaging lists nutrition facts based off the entire package. One serving vs. the whole package will be distinguished on the label above calories, you will not have to guess!
The FDA recommends checking the serving size when comparing nutrients and calories of different foods to ensure you are making an accurate comparison.
Calories reflect the total number of calories supplied from a serving of the food eaten. According to the FDA, 2,000 calories a day is used as a general guide for nutrition advice. Sex, height, weight, physical activity levels, and nutrition goals truly determine each individuals daily caloric intake.
- 100 calories per serving = moderate
- 400+ calories per serving = high
% Daily Value
% Daily Value (%DV) can be tricky to understand. %DV indicates how much of a nutrient is present and how much of that nutrient contributes to the total recommended intake amount of said nutrient. For example, if carbohydrates are 17%, that serving provides 17% of the recommended amount of carbohydrates for the day, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
- 5% DV of less = low
- 20% DV or more = high
On food labels, total fat is totaled by adding saturated fat and trans fat. Saturated fats are found in animal-based products such as beef, processed meats, dairy, eggs, baked goods, and more. Trans Fat that is formed naturally can be found in very small amounts in dairy products, beef, and lamb. On the other hand, artificial trans fat can be found in partially hydrogenated oils, however, since 2018, partially hydrogenated oils have been phased out.
Most people shy away when they hear the word “fat”, but fats are extremely important for energy and development. Here are a few examples of why fat is important…
- Creates cell membrane and is crucial for growth and development
- Helps the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Helps maintain healthy skin and hair
- Stores excess energy
- Supports nervous system, immune system, and reproductive system
See? Fat is important in any diet. However, too much fat can be an issue. Diets high in saturated and trans fat contribute to a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends sticking to around or less than 13 grams of saturated fat per day.
Additionally, while fats are a good thing, dieticians recommend getting fat from monounsaturated fats (olive oil, nut butters, nuts, avocados, etc) and polyunsaturated fats (walnuts, fish, flax seeds, soybean oil, etc).
Cholesterol is in all cells of the body, taking shape as a waxy, fat-like substance. The body produces cholesterol primarily in the liver and is also taken in through diet. Cholesterol can only be found in animal products like egg yolks, shellfish, dairy products, and more.
Hearing you have high cholesterol can be scary, but that does not mean all cholesterol is bad. Cholesterol is responsible for cell membrane structure, the production of bile which helps with fat digestion, vitamin D production, and hormone production.
Many foods that have high levels of cholesterol also have higher levels of saturated fat, thus it is important to keep an eye on how much cholesterol you are taking in. The recommended amount of cholesterol intake daily is less than 300 mg per day.
Sodium is a dietary mineral and although it is thought of as salt, it is actually not the same thing. Sodium is one of the chemical elements found in salt. Much of America’s salt intake (70%) comes from prepackaged and processed foods while only 11% comes from salt added to cooked foods.
Like cholesterol and fat, sodium is essential for bodily functions. It is especially important for balancing electrolytes so you do not become overhydrated, experience muscle contractions, and poor nervous system functions.
While looking at food labels, it is important to be cognizant of how much sodium you are intaking. Too much sodium is associated with an increased risk of developing high blood pressure. Having high blood pressure increases the risk of heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, sodium intake should be less than 2,300 mg per day.
This may come as a surprise to most, but carbohydrates are found primarily in plant foods, with the exception of dairy products that contain lactose. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy for cells, tissues, and organs; especially the brain and muscles.
Sugars fall under the carbohydrates family, and the food label includes total sugars and added sugars. Total sugars total the amount of natural and added sugars present, while added sugars are added during the processing of the food(s). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended limiting added sugar intake to less than 50 grams per day.
Dietary fibers also fall under the carbohydrates family. Dietary fiber helps bowel movements, cholesterol levels, and blood glucose levels. It is recommended to get your dietary fiber from whole grains and avoid refined grains.
Humans get their protein from consuming plants and animals. Proteins are composed of thousands of smaller units called amino acids. Each amino acid structure is unique, and the sequencing determines the specific function the amino acid plays in the body’s function.
Aside from carbohydrates, protein is arguably the second most important building block for the body. Protein supports…
- Strong hair and nails
- Building and repairing tissues and cells
- Immune response
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients. Although being tiny, they are mighty. Examples include potassium, iron, and vitamins E, K, C, and D.
Vitamins and minerals are essential for bodily function, so it’s important we intake as many as possible through a variety of foods. An easy way to ensure you are intaking enough micronutrients is to eat the rainbow.
Learning how to read food labels isn’t too bad. Especially since they are helpful for understanding what nutrients you are intaking and help with smart grocery shopping decisions. Moreover, food labels help you determine whether or not you are getting too much or too little of a portion of your diet.
Healthy relationships with food are important, so be sure not to be glued to food labels. It is good to look if you are concerned, but trust your gut, and eat your rainbow.
Written by Lauren Conklin