If you’re trying to eat healthier, that means you are probably paying closer attention to nutrition labels and ingredients. Nutrition labels are not entirely user-friendly, which is why many people don’t read them correctly. Certain terms, values, or serving sizes may be unrecognizable, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. One could argue that deciphering a nutrition label is like trying to make sense of a college calculus textbook.
You don’t have to experience confusion every time you read a nutrition label. These labels have a lot of useful information, and you really only need to pay attention to a few key things. As a general rule of thumb, if you see ingredients that you cannot pronounce, the food is most likely processed or ultra-processed. The packaged food items are harmful to your health, but healthier foods also have nutrition labels. This guide aims to help you read your way to a healthier lifestyle. But first, here are a few nutrition terms to understand:
- Calorie-free: 5 calories or less per serving
- Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
- Reduced calorie/fat: At least 25% less calories/fat than the original product
- Low fat: 3 grams (g) or less of fat per serving
- Fat-free: Less than 0.5 g of fat per serving
- Low-sodium: 140 milligrams (mg) or less of sodium per serving
- Very low sodium: 35 mg or less of sodium per serving
- Low cholesterol: 20 mg or less of cholesterol per serving
- Sugar-free: less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving
- High fiber: Contains 20% or more of the recommended daily value (DV) of fiber per serving
The Serving Size
This is where your health journey begins. Before you dive into a bag of chips or open a carton of orange juice, take a close look at how many servings exist in the food you’re eating. The rest of the information, i.e. calories, cholesterol, fat, sugars, and protein, will pertain to the serving size. Single-serving packages are easy to understand, but multi-serving packages require a bit more attention to detail. If you take a large bag of potato chips, for example, there are probably 14 servings or more in the entire bag. That’s bad news if you eat the entire bag in one sitting. Most of the time, serving sizes are measured out in cups, tablespoons, or ounces.
This is the biggest number you’ll see on a nutrition label, and it’s the first number as well. Many people only pay attention to this number, disregarding the rest of the nutrition label. The number of calories matters, but where the calories come from is of more importance. A healthy snack bar may have as many calories as a candy bar, but the sugar is lower and the fats are healthier. Pay close attention to the calories in relation to the serving size as well, because eating two or three servings from a multi-serving food item doubles or triples your caloric intake of that food.
Percent Daily Value
The daily value (DV) indicates how much of your total allotment of that particular nutrient you get per serving. If a serving of unsalted nuts contains 20% of the DV of fat, then you know how much more fat your body needs for the rest of the day. As a general rule of thumb, 5% or less is low and 20% or more is high.
Most nutrition labels list total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Ideally, you want to make sure that you eat foods that are low, or completely free, of trans fats and saturated fats. Trans fat is added to processed, packaged foods like cookies and crackers. It is an artificial fat that makes snack foods taste good, but it also extends their shelf life. Saturated fat exists in hot dogs, burgers or whole milk. Eating foods that are high in saturated fat can increase your risk for heart disease. You want to focus on healthier, monounsaturated fats!
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that comes from foods like shellfish, butter, meat, whole milk, and egg yolks. The body requires some cholesterol to make hormones and vitamin D, but eating too much of it can cause plaque to build-up in your arterial walls, increasing your risk for heart disease. Always aim low when looking at the cholesterol on nutritional labels.
Most American adults exceed the DV of sodium by about 1,000 to 1,500 mg. Current guidelines state that you should consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, which equates to about one teaspoon of salt. A lot of the sodium you eat comes from packaged and processed foods like pretzels, chips, frozen pizza, and jarred sauces and dressings. Keep salt levels under control by making sure you have less than 300 mg of sodium per serving.
Carbohydrates (carbs) exist on nutrition labels in three forms: sugar, starch, and fiber. The first two elevate blood sugar, while the third does not. If you are counting carbs, you most likely need to watch out for refined carbs, which tend to come from white foods like pasta, bread, etc. Complex carbs from whole grains and vegetables, for example, are much healthier and better for your diet. In fact, most dietitians say that complex carbs should comprise 50% of your daily caloric intake!
When you eat more fiber, you can stay fuller for longer and avoid blood sugar spikes. That means that you’re less likely to crave unhealthy snacks between meals. The American Heart Association recommends that you eat at least 25 g of fiber per day, but this may depend on specific dietary needs. A good rule of thumb is to eat about four g of fiber per serving for grains and three g of fiber for packaged foods and bread.
Finally, we’ve reached sugar. Sugar can have several names on an ingredient list, including high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, sucralose, fructose, and glucose. Due to the recent nutritional label update, you can easily spot the total sugar and added sugars in a given food product. It also included the percent DV of added sugars per serving. You should aim for most of the sugar you eat to come from natural sources like fruit, as opposed to processed foods. And while artificial sweeteners are zero-calorie, they are highly sweet and don’t get included in the total sugar count. Try to limit your sugar consumption to no more than 10% of your daily caloric intake.