Breaking It Down: How to Decipher Nutrition Labels

Written by Stefanie Lisa

Deciphering Nutrition Labels

Have you ever found yourself turning over the packaging of a product you might want to buy and feeling a bit baffled by all the information? What does everything on nutrition labels mean? Is this a healthy food or is it just being marketed as one?

Trust me, you’re not alone! Especially as the format and information has changed over time. Frankly, deciphering nutrition labels can be tricky, especially if you don’t know what to look for. But, if you want to take the reins on your health, it’s critically important to learn how to read the nutritional labels on your foods, and use that information when implementing food choices.

Don’t Be Fooled

Wouldn’t it be nice to just rely on the big lettering on the front of the label telling you the food is good for you? I know I’m not the first to warn you, but please don’t be fooled by nutrition labels or focus exclusively on the calorie count, carb count, or grams of fat! Food manufacturers are still in business to make money. And that means many will use whatever means necessary to make their food products stand out on the shelves and look more appealing. And most are very well aware that many of us are watching our health and waistlines, so they really want us to think the product is healthy. That’s why it’s so important to be smart, read food labels, and don’t take packaging claims like “low fat,” “low sugar,” “50% less calories,” and “diet” at face value.

Nutrition Labels: The Basics

As you’re finding a new food, the first thing to do is turn the package around and find the nutrition fact for yourself and determine if the food is, indeed, high in protein, low in calories, low sugar, less fattening than the normal version or just masquerading as a healthier version.

To begin, start with the serving size and number of servings per container:

• Servings—the number of “helpings” in the entire package.
• Serving Size—the average amount of food for one person at one sitting. Check this portion of the label as well so you can determine how a “serving” is measured. Is it one cup, is it 228 grams, is it 8 ounces?

Next, scan down to the following:

Calories—the number of calories per serving. Again, watch out for the number of servings in a package. While something may look like a single serving, you may be surprised to find out that, in actuality, there are two or more servings in a small package.
Carbohydrates—these are made up of sugar, starch, and fiber. If you’re watching your carb intake, a simple rule of thumb is that every gram of fiber cancels out one gram of carbohydrates.
Protein—pretty straightforward: the number of grams of protein per serving.
Fats—this initial number will include all types of fats; the total number of grams.
Trans Fats—with all types of negative effects, there is really no safe amount of these industrial-produced trans fats to eat. In fact, the Institute of Medicine says any intake (above 0) increases the risk of heart disease.
Sugars—these consist of all sugars including sugars from milk products like lactose and sugars from fruits like fructose.
Sodium—aim for less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day if you’re a healthy adult.
Cholesterol—this will tell you how many milligrams of cholesterol are in a serving, if any.
Vitamins and Nutrients—lastly, the nutrition labels may list other vitamins and nutrients that are present in the food item and often will give you a percentage of Dietary Reference Intake or DRI, which is a general set of reference values set by the National Institutes of Health for nutrient intakes for healthy folks. Speaking of…

What Does % DV (Daily Value) Mean on Nutrition Labels?

The Percent Daily Value you’ll find on the Nutrition Facts is a general guide for the nutrients per serving set by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Nutrition labels are typically based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day. So, when it makes suggestions as to the proper dietary and nutrient percentages, take that into account and adjust accordingly.

When “0” Isn’t Really “Zero”

It’s not unusual to find a label that boast “0 grams of trans fats.” Safe, right? Not so fast. In actuality, that food might contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. Worse, you may be looking at what appears to be a single serving, only to find a typical portion is labeled as 4 servings. Why? Because food manufacturers know they can list a food as having “zero” trans fats if it’s less than 0.5 grams per serving. In this example, you’d actually be getting about two grams. That’s one reason checking the ingredients list is so important.

Check the Ingredients List

On the ingredients list, the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. That means the higher amounts are listed closer to the top of the list. So if sugar, for example, is listed first or second on the list, you may want to set down the food and step away.

Often, you’ll find “less is more” when it comes to ingredients. I won’t go as far as saying you should limit to only a certain number of ingredients or that they all must be easily pronounceable because often foods are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals (which aren’t always easy to pronounce—how do you say pantothenic acid, i.e., Vitamin B5, or cobalamin, a type of vitamin B 12, anyway?). Yet a general rule is to watch for familiar ingredients.

More importantly, you’ll want to avoid foods that contain trans fats. Remember how manufacturers can list 0 trans fats if the food contains less than a half a gram per serving? You can spot hidden trans fats in the ingredients list as “partially hydrogenated oils.”

Other ingredients to watch for are hidden sugars. These can be spotted by watching ingredients that end in “ose” (like sucrose, dextrose, and fructose). Also, artificial sweeteners might taste sweet but their effects can be anything but. Common ones to watch for include sucralose, saccharine, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium (also known as “Ace K”).

Make Use of Technology for a Quick Scan

One of the coolest things to come about in these more modern times is the ability to scan nutrition labels with your mobile phone and pull up the nutritional information quickly and easily. Many food tracking apps, like My Fitness Pal and Lose It, allow you to simply scan the bar code on the food you’re about to eat. The program will break down and list all the nutrients for you. It really can’t get much easier than that!

Which Nutrients Are Healthy and Which Aren’t?

This is where it’s important to know what is and is not good for you, and in which amounts. Now that you know the nutrients contained in the food item you’re considering, it’s time to take a closer look at what is acceptable for you on your current nutrition program. For example, you may be limiting grams of sugars, so it’s important to tally up sugar grams in each portion of food you eat. Or, you may be measuring how much protein or fiber you’re eating to ensure you’re consuming enough for your goals.

Don’t Believe the Nutrition Labels “Hype”

At the end of the day, just because the nutrition labels say “healthy”, that doesn’t mean it is. Or that it is for you and your fitness and nutrition goals. Do your due diligence and read the label for yourself. By following these few simple tips, you’ll become an expert at deciphering food labels in a snap. Now that you know what to look for, it’s easier to make the right choices!

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