Author: Diana Price
When was the last time you checked the
nutrition label on a package of food?
And if you did, did the information
listed there influence your choice to purchase or eat
that food? For many of us, though we’re aware of the
nutrition label, it’s not always clear what we should
be looking for or how we should use the information
provided. If you aren’t regularly checking the nutrition
label, it might be time to start, as the information
provided can help you make good choices and
maintain a healthy diet.
Danielle Bach, MS, RD, CSO, dietitian at Cancer
Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in
Goodyear, Arizona, encourages consumers to view
the label as a tool that can provide valuable data and
help steer you in the right direction. “Nutrition food
labels can empower individuals to make informed
decisions when purchasing food or making food
selections,” she says.
Find the facts
As a first step in using the nutrition facts chart to
your advantage, it’s important to know what all the
elements on the label mean. Here’s a quick rundown
of the major elements of the chart:
Serving size and servings per container. This number
will tell you how much of the product is considered a serving and how
many servings are in the container. All the other information on the
label is based on this single serving size.
- Calories. A calorie measures how much energy a food provides.
(Remember, this number represents the number of calories in a single
- Calories from fat. This refers to the number of calories in a single
serving that come from fat. General recommendations encourage
consumers to limit total calories from fat to 20 to 30 percent of their
total calorie intake.
- Percent of daily value. This number indicates what percentage
of the daily recommended total is included in the serving size. Five percent
or less of daily value is considered low; 20 percent or more is high.
- Total fat (includes saturated fat and trans fat).
General recommendations are to limit saturated fat to fewer than 20
grams (g) per day and to avoid trans fats entirely if possible.
- Cholesterol. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found in the
bloodstream and in all the cells of the body. Too much cholesterol
is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The American Heart
Association recommends consuming no more than 200 to 300 milligrams
(mg) of cholesterol per day.
- Sodium. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but we need only a little bit
in our diet. Aim for 2,400 mg or less per day. (Individuals with high
blood pressure are advised to consume less than 1,500 mg per day.)
- Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are macronutrients that compose
a large part of our diet and include sugars, starches, and fibers. Food
labels list two components of carbohydrates that are important:
- Dietary fiber. The American Dietetic Association recommends 25 to
35 g of fiber per day. Foods that contain 5 g or more per serving are
- Sugars. Added sugars are high in calories and low in value. Look for
foods that have a low sugar count.
- Protein. Protein should constitute about 15 to 25 percent of the diet.
Because our protein needs vary, food labels report protein in grams
but do not apply a percentage of daily value to protein.
- Vitamins and minerals. The food label lists the percentage of
daily value for vitamin A, calcium, vitamin C, and iron. (This is the
minimum; some labels include other nutrients.)
- Ingredients list. The ingredients list appears directly below the
chart. It’s an important aspect of the label because it includes all ingredients
in the product.
Evaluate the information
With a basic understanding of the label’s elements, the next step is to
get a sense of how you can use that information to make good choices.
According to Bach, evaluating the chart based on a few key components
can simplify the process.
Though each person will approach the
chart with different dietary needs and
considerations, Bach says that a good
place to start is the serving size. Identifying
the size of each serving and the
number of servings in the container is
key. “Sometimes people are surprised to
learn that the information on the nutrition
label is not an indication of what’s
in the entire package or container; there
could be many portions per package or
container,” Bach says. “Once consumers
are informed of this common assumption,
it becomes easier to work around
this: if you eat an entire package of something
and the label says there are three
servings per package, you know that you
will have to multiply everything on the
label by three.”
After evaluating the serving size, Bach
recommends noting the percentage of
daily value of each nutrient listed. “Anything
listed as 20 percent is a high source
of your daily value; anything listed as 5
percent or less is a low source; and anything
in between is a moderate amount
of your daily value,” Bach says. “This
can be a good thing or a bad thing,
depending on what you are looking at.
If it’s 20 percent of your daily value for
fiber, vitamins, minerals, or protein, for
example, this is desirable. If it’s 20 percent
of your daily value for fat calories,
this is not desirable.” Also important to
keep in mind, she says, is that the nutrition
labels are based on a 2,000-calorie
diet. If your goal is to consume less than
2,000 calories, the percentage of daily
values will be different for you.
Bach also encourages a careful look
at the ingredients list, which generally
appears beneath the nutrition facts chart
and is as important as the numbers listed
on the chart itself. Bach says that noting
which ingredients are included can help
consumers avoid food allergies and intolerances,
and it will provide a sense of
which ingredients are most prominent.
“Food ingredients are listed in order of
the greatest amount to the least amount
in the product,” she says, “so if sugar is
listed near the top, you know that there
is a lot of added sugar in the product.”
Become a savvy shopper
So now you know how to read a nutrition
label. What next? Put that valuable
information to use by choosing healthy
foods. As a general rule, Bach says, use
your knowledge of the label to look for
foods that are higher in fiber, vitamins,
and minerals and lower in calories, fat,
and sugar. When looking at the ingredients
list, she says, “try to avoid products
that have many unrecognizable ingredients
listed, as this is generally a more
processed food—and use caution with
food items that have more than 10 to
15 ingredients, as these also tend to be
Finally, keep in mind that just because
a package may boldly proclaim a food’s
benefits on the front, you still need to
check the label. “Food companies are
trying to make a profit, so they make
their packaging appear as appealing as
they possibly can,” Bach says. “When
you see a package that claims half the
amount of sodium or sugar than before,
you still have to check the facts: just
because it has 50 percent less does not
mean it’s a low source of salt or sugar or
is considered healthy; it just means it’s
lower than before.”