Have you ever sat and sleepily read the nutrition label on a cereal box while you’re eating breakfast? Most of us have at some point in our lives, but we should really be reading nutrition labels every time we go to the grocery store. With the growing number of people who are overweight or obese in America, it is now more important than ever that we educate ourselves about the foods that we are eating and their nutritional content.
There is no better place to start educating oneself about the nutritional values of foods than with food nutrition labels. Many people, however, don’t know how to properly interpret the information contained in food labeling. Many food labels are also misleading or confusing, trying to hide less healthy ingredients and additives, for example.
Note: To read the information about each section of the food label, place your mouse over the section you wish to read about. The information about that specific section will appear in this area. If you accidentally move your mouse from the section you were reading about, simply return your mouse to the same location.
The Serving Size is the place where you need to start when reading a food label.
This section of the label tells you what constitutes a serving of a product and the number of servings contained within the package. The Serving Size is usually listed in easily understood measurements, such as cups, pieces, or packets, and is then followed by the metric amount, which is expressed in grams, 43g, for example.
Bear in mind, however, that if you eat more, or less, than the suggested serving size, you will need to adjust all of the nutritional values listed on the label to match the serving you consumed. This is especially important for people that are carefully monitoring their intake of calories, sodium, or fat.
Percent Daily Value
The Percent Daily Value number appears on the far right hand side of the food label. This number tells you how much of the Daily Value, based on a 2,000 calorie diet, each serving of food supplies. These numbers are extremely helpful to people who are monitoring their daily intake of calories and/or nutrients. Some food labels will contain a chart at the bottom of the label that contains Daily Value recommendations for both 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets.
Calories and Calories from Fat
This section of the food label contains the total number of Calories in one serving of a food product. Calories from Fat indicates the number of calories that come from fat in the food. Here's an easy way to compare these two numbers: The closer the Calories from Fat number is to total Calories number, the higher a food is in fat. Look for foods where the Calories from Fat are far lower than the total number of Calories.
The Total Fat number indicates how much fat is contained in a food product, regardless of whether or not it is unsaturated or saturated. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that no more than 30% of your total daily caloric intake should be derived from fat. Depending on which fats are found in a food product, one or more types of fat may be listed below the Total Fat number. While some of these fats actually have potential health benefits, they are still high in calories and should still be consumed in moderation.
The different types of fat found on food labels are:
- Remain liquid at room temperature.
- Do not adversely affect total blood cholesterol level.
- Tend to raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
- Are found in oils such as canola, olive, and peanut.
- Remain liquid at room temperature.
- Tend to raise both HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
- Can be found mainly in vegetable oils, except tropical oils, such as coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils.
- Are normally solid at room temperature.
- Can cause the total blood cholesterol level to rise, particularly the LDL fraction.
Are found in many animal products, such as meat and dairy items, as well as tropical oils.
It is recommended that you consume no more than 300 mg of cholesterol each day. Cholesterol is found in animal products, with eggs and organ meats containing the highest levels. Other common sources of cholesterol are meats, poultry, dairy products, and shellfish. Cholesterol is a primary contributor to atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of plaque in the arteries. This buildup develops gradually over time, as soft fatty streaks form along the inner walls of arteries. As the buildup continues, these streaks begin to harden into plaque, which constricts the blood flow through the arteries. This can lead to a heart attack, the formation of blood clots, or stroke.
It is recommended that adults consume no more than 2,400 mg of sodium per day. Sodium can be found in small amounts in almost all foods, even drinking water. The highest concentrations of sodium are found in processed meats such as bacon and ham, canned soups and vegetables, and in many frozen foods. Most restaurant foods are also high in sodium. Sodium is a major contributor to hypertension, or high blood pressure, in many people. Hypertension can increase your odds of having a stroke or heart attack.
Carbohydrates, especially from food sources such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, should make up 45 to 65% of your total caloric intake for the day. Whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and brown rice, are all good choices for carbohydrates because they high in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Dietary Fiber, which is listed under Total Carbohydrate, is a vital part of a balanced and healthy diet. Fiber also has a minimal number of calories and can be found in foods such as oatmeal, beans, broccoli, apples, oranges, and whole wheat or bran cereals. Diets that are high in fiber help support a healthy digestive system and keep you regular. It is recommended that adults consume 25-30 grams of fiber each day.
Sugars are also listed under Total Carbohydrate, and are found in many foods. Starchy foods, such as pasta and potatoes, are rich in complex carbohydrates and should be eaten as a part of a healthy diet. Simple sugars, found in most sweets, such as candy and cookies, should be eaten only in moderation, because they add calories without adding other nutrients.
Protein is important for proper growth and development because it supports your body's cells and builds and repairs your muscles and other tissues. Common foods with good amounts of protein include milk, eggs, meat, fish, poultry, cheese, yogurt, nuts, and soybeans. Since many foods that are high in protein are also high in fat and cholesterol, you should choose lean cuts of meat and lower-fat cheeses and yogurts whenever possible. It is recommended that 10-35% of your daily caloric intake should come from protein.
Vitamins and Minerals
The last section of the food label contains the vitamin and mineral information for the food product. The percentages for vitamins and minerals are only listed in the Daily Value Column. Depending on how complete the label information is, all vitamins and minerals may be listed for a food product, with some vitamins and minerals having 0%, or only the vitamins and minerals that are actually in the food product will be listed.
The Daily Value number appears on the far right hand side of the food label. This number tells you how much of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), based on a 2,000 calorie diet, each nutrient contains. These numbers are extremely helpful to people who are monitoring their daily intake of calories and/or nutrients. Some food labels will contain a chart at the bottom of the label that contains Daily Value recommendations for both 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets.