How to read food labels
Most people know that a good diet means eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer curly fries and doughnuts. But the healthy choice isn’t always so clear when buying packaged foods. Just what does “light” mean anyway? The key is in the food label – those little boxes of numbers, nutrients and ingredients that tell you what’s in the box.
Learning how to read a nutrition label is a fundamental skill for making smarter nutrition choices. Processed foods are required by law to contain a package label describing the serving size, how many servings are in a package, and basic nutrition information related to calories, protein, fat, sugars, fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. In addition, processed foods also contain an ingredient list.
Together, this information is supposed to help a consumer make an informed decision. But the process of actually doing this is complicated. Here are some tips on how to read and understand the nutrition label. After reading, I think you’ll agree that we need an easier way to determine if a food is “healthier” or not.
16 tips for reading the nutrition facts panel
“ The key is in the food label – those little boxes of numbers, nutrients and ingredients that tell you what’s in the box ”
- Look at ingredient lists: they’re the core of the label. Ingredients are listed in order of weight. You should carefully check ingredients for contents like partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils, as these signify the presence of trans fats. Fortunately, it’s getting easier and easier just to find brands that have no hydrogenated fats among the ingredients. Also look for added sugars and whole grains— the label must say “whole,” not just “wheat flour.”
- Starting from the top of the label, look at the serving size. These are often unrealistically small. If you eat more than what the serving size indicates, you need to multiply all nutritional contents accordingly.
- Next is the number of calories per serving, and the calories from fat. The total number of calories is very important if you’re attempting to control your weight. The calories from fat are less important. The type of fat is much more important.
- Further down you will find the total fat per serving and the grams of saturated, trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Amounts are rounded to the nearest whole number, so 0.4 gram would be listed as 0 grams, 0.8 gram would be listed as 1 gram. You want to limit your saturated fat to 5 percent or less of your total calories (divide your body weight by 12 to get the total daily limit of saturated fat in grams).
- As for trans fats, you want to limit intake entirely. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are healthy, so no limitation is needed other than if you are limiting calories.
- Further down is cholesterol content. This number is largely irrelevant as your blood cholesterol levels depend more on saturated-fat and transfat intake than on cholesterol intake. Ignore this one.
- Solid fats: If the ingredient list contains beef fat, butter, chicken fat, coconut oil, cream, hydrogenated oils, palm kernel oils, pork fat (lard), shortening or stick margarine, then the product contains solid fats. The Dietary Guidelines advise limiting solid fats.
- Then there’s carbohydrate content and, unfortunately, current rules do not require labels to distinguish whole grains from processed grains. The label does give information on dietary fiber. As a rule of thumb, men should take in more than 38 grams of total fiber per day and women should take in more than 25 grams of total fiber.
- Sugar is next; less is better. The label does not distinguish between natural and added sugars, so check the ingredients list to spot added sugars—a frequent culprit is highfructose corn syrup.
- Added sugars: Ingredients signifying added sugars include anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, confectioner’s powdered sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrin, fructose, highfructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectar, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, white granulated sugar, cane juice, evaporated corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, crystal dextrose, glucose, liquid fructose, sugar cane juice and fruit nectar. In many cases, products contain multiple forms of sugar.
- And finally, protein is listed as total protein. Chances are, your protein intake is adequate, and I usually don’t suggest tallying it.
- At the extreme right of the label you’ll see each nutrient’s percentage of your total daily intake based upon the guess that you take in 2,000 calories a day. Since this amount of calories would be appropriate only for an individual weighing 75kg, this section is quite useless if you don’t happen to weigh 75kg.
- Check for allergens. Legislation also requires food manufacturers to list all potential food allergens on food packaging. The most common food allergens are fish, shellfish, soybean, wheat, egg, milk, peanuts and tree nuts. This information is usually included near the list of ingredients on the package. For those who follow a gluten-free diet, this is also an easy way to identify if wheat is a product ingredient.
- Carefully review the ingredients list. Note that the ingredient list is in decreasing order of substance weight in the product. That is, the ingredients that are listed first are the most abundant in the product. The ingredient list is useful for identifying whether or not the product contains transfat, solid fats, added sugars, whole grains and refined grains. Note that although trans-fat is included in the “fat” section of the nutrition label, if the product contains <0.5g per serving, the manufacturer does not need to claim it. However, if a product contains partially hydrogenated oils, then the product contains trans fat.
- Whole grains: If whole grains are the primary food list, then the product is 100% whole grain. The whole grain should be the first or second ingredient. Examples of whole grains include brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, rolled oats, whole-grain sorghum, wholegrain triticale, whole-grain barley, whole-grain corn, whole oats/ oatmeal, whole rye, whole wheat and wild rice.
- Refined grains: Refined grains should be “enriched.” If the first ingredient is an enriched grain, then the product is not a whole grain. This is one way to understand whether or not a “wheat bread” is actually whole wheat or a refined product.
“ The ingredient list is useful for identifying whether or not the product contains transfat, solid fats, added sugars, whole grains and refined grains ”