Given the countless amounts of common food labels – some legitimate and others more or less meaningless – it can be difficult to understand the health benefits or nutritional value of food. Luckily, most foods are required to have their nutrition facts listed somewhere on the packaging. Here are some tips to help you read a nutrition facts label:
1. Look at the serving size: All of the information on a nutrition facts label is information based on one serving. If the label on a bag of chips says 150 calories, but it also says that there are 3 servings in that bag, eating the entire bag means 450 calories. The same goes for all of the other nutrients and percent daily values.
2. Percent Daily Value: Don’t forget that all of these percent daily value figures are based on a 2,000 daily caloric intake. While you should still view % DV as guidelines, daily caloric intake varies from person to person based on their age, sex, and activity level. As shown in the chocolate bar graphic, the bar contains 9 percent of your carbohydrate needs based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. If your caloric intake is greater than 2,000, then this percentage would decrease and you would need to consume more carbohydrates to meet your body's needs.
3. Check the calories: In order to maintain a healthy body weight, it is important that your caloric intake balance with the energy that you expend. Counting or cutting down on calories can help you lose weight, however it does not necessarily translate to a healthier you. What's more important than the number of calories you consume is what's in the foods that you’re consuming.
4. Take a look at the ingredients list! Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so if the first couple of ingredients are refined carbs, added sugars, or something that you don't recognize or can't pronounce, then that means a lot of the food is comprised of that ingredient and the food probably isn't that healthy.
5. Nutrients: Simply put, nutrients are substances that your body needs for growth and a healthy life. Examples include carbohydrates, protein, fats, sugar, sodium, and vitamins. Your body needs all these nutrients, but keep in mind that there are 'good' and 'bad' types of most of these nutrients, and any nutrient in excess is not beneficial.
6. Here's a basic breakdown of what each nutrient is:
Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and fibers that provide the body with energy. It is suggested that 45 to 65 percent of daily calories should come from carbs. There are 'good' and 'bad' carbs: complex and simple. Complex carbs have different molecular structures that take more time and energy to break down. In other words, complex carbs, which can be found in legumes and whole grains, fuel the body for a longer period and can keep you full for longer.
There are three basic types of fats: unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. While there is contested research about the nature of these fats, generally unsaturated fats are seen as beneficial fats, while the later two are considered 'bad' fats Health experts suggest that you limit these fats. Unsaturated fats can be found in plant-based foods such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, while saturated fats are usually present in animal foods like meat and dairy products.
Proteins are essential for almost all bodily functions. While there are many short-term benefits of having a high protein diet, most Americans eat more protein than their bodies require. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. Here is a list of common foods and their protein content.
Vitamins and minerals have hundreds of important functions, but many Americans don't get enough of many of these essential micronutrients – Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. Be sure to check their % DV too. Here is a list of foods that are good sources of important vitamins and minerals.
Sugars, both natural and added, are found in most foods. Be weary of foods that are marketed as natural or healthy, such as apple sauce, peanut butter, or energy bars, because they may have a lot of added sugars. Sugar may have different names in the ingredients list. Also, foods that are 'sugar-free' may also contain artificial sweeteners, which have their own benefits and concern.
One way to avoid being fooled by misleading food labels is to look at what's actually in the food. If something claims to be 'low calorie,' or 'no sugar added,' or 'a good source of___,' then see how many calories or what percentage of a nutrient one serving provides.