How to Correctly Read Nutrition Facts Labels

Understanding the Label is the First Step to Healthy Nutrition

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Nutrition Facts on a label are required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on packaged food and beverages. The facts are listed in a boxed section and provide information about the nutrient content of the product. Each product must have a nutrition facts box, but the specific nutrients listed vary according to the packaged food or drink.  Learning to read labels can help you eat healthier, balanced meals.

Always check the number of servings.The nutrition facts are based on one serving, but many products contain more than one.Beverage labels are notorious for this.The label may say 24 grams of sugar, but may contain 1 ½ or 2 servings per container, equaling 36-48 grams of sugar. 

Next is where the number of calories and the number of calories from fat per serving is located.If you are counting calories it is important to check the serving size.Fat free does not mean calorie free.Many times lower fat items can have more calories and sugar than regular fat versions. Healthy fat is important for your diet.If the label says that one serving equals three cookies and 100 calories, and you eat six cookies, then you have eaten two servings which equal twice the number of calories and fat. 

Try to eat foods high in nutrients.It is important to consume these vital nutrients to keep you healthy and protect you from getting sick.Many of us do not consume enough Potassium, Vitamin A & C, Calcium, Iron and other healthy nutrient. Choose brands with higher nutrient values.

Fiber and sugar are considered types of carbohydrates.Eating foods rich in dietary fiber can reduce the risk of heart disease and improve digestive function.Limit foods with added sugar such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, or corn syrup.These sugars add calories and do not contain vital nutrients, vitamins or minerals.The items that are first on the ingredient list are in the highest quantities in that particular food.Make sure that added sugars are not in the first few items of the ingredient list.

Eating enough of the right kind of protein is important.Fast foods or other unhealthy sources are not recommended.Whenever possible purchase hormone and antibiotic or organic meats, poultry, dry beans, milk and milk products.In nature fat accompanies protein.Eat foods low in fat, but not fat free.Healthy fat is important for your diet.

The gray section contains the recommended percent daily value which is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.  Your values may be less or more, depending on your diet.


Important facts & Tips

  • Cholesterol is the building block of hormones, an essential component of cell membranes, as well as a covering for nerve-cell fibers.  Only animal products contain cholesterol.  Some healthy sources of cholesterol are organic eggs, meats, poultry, and milk products.  Eating good sources of cholesterol limits your risk for heart disease.
  • Healthy fats send a message to your brain to stop eating.  Fats keep you fuller longer and prevent you from unhealthy snacking throughout the day.  The essential fatty acids (EFA’s)  in fats  help your skin stay soft, deliver fat soluble vitamins, benefit your  heart, immune system, and metabolism, as well as are an excellent source of fuel.  Some EFA’s boost your metabolic rate, which increases the amount of fat you are burning, enhancing fat loss.  While bad fats can raise your cholesterol, good fats help lower your total cholesterol. 
  • Sugar depresses the immune system within 30 minutes of consuming and can last for as long as five hours.  Unfortunately sugar is in almost every packaged food.  Limit sugar to on packaged foods to 10g or below per snack or meal.  The natural sugar in fruits and vegetables is fine unless you have sugar sensitive health issues such as candida or diabetes.
  • Sodium: New dietary guidelines suggest children, African-Americans, 50 and older, and people with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease limit sodium to 1,500mg. Everyone else up to 2,300mg, about 1teaspoon.  On average Americans consume about 3,400 mg of sodium a day.  Processed or packaged food tends to have high sodium.  Add sea salt to your food instead of table salt. Sea salt contains valuable other minerals and not just sodium.  Eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables more often and avoid packaged foods to keep sodium intake in check.
  • If you do not recognize more than three ingredients, avoid that food; it may be full of unnecessary nutritionally void chemicals and additives.
  • Avoid colors and dyes.

Reading labels takes time and can be overwhelming.  Begin slowly; make sure you have extra time when you first start.  It helps to focus on one or two items at a time.  Depending on what you would like to lower or increase; you can choose to lower sugar, sodium, trans fats, carbohydrates, or calories while increasing fiber, protein, or nutrients. 

More information on reading Nutrition Facts Labels