Reading food labels is an important part of taking care of your health. Without knowing what ingredients and nutrients go into your food, you won’t know whether you’re overconsuming calories or eating a healthy, balanced diet. Unfortunately, many people only start reading nutrition labels as part of their weight loss journey, when in reality, we should all start reading them to learn about the food we put in our bodies. Most people understand the basic information on nutrition labels, including calories in a serving, but they may not understand macronutrients or what a serving actually looks like. In addition, food labels can be difficult to understand and may mislead you into consuming more than you need.
Reading Nutrition Facts Labels
The FDA requires most packaged foods and beverages to add a Nutrition Facts label. On this label, you’ll find information about the number of servings in a container, serving size, calories, and other types of nutrients your body needs for fuel.
The serving size is an important aspect of the nutrition facts label that’s often overlooked. This number is based on the amount of foods people typically eat at one time; it does not indicate how much you should eat. Therefore, depending on your caloric needs, you may eat more or less than the serving size. That being said, if you’re counting calories, knowing how large a serving is can help you properly track your caloric intake to ensure you’re not overeating.
The rest of the label, including the calories and other values like carbs, sugar content, and fat, is based on one serving of the food or beverage. However, if more than one serving is commonly consumed in one sitting, there might be a second or third column listing the calories in one serving versus the calories in the entire container.
Of course, not every food has a nutrition label. For example, non-packaged foods like meats from the deli counter and fresh fruits and vegetables do not have these labels. Therefore, if you’re trying to count calories, you may have to do additional research online to find the right values.
Percent Daily Value (DV)
Every nutrition label has a column specifying the daily value percentage, which tells you how much of a nutrient is in one serving of the food or beverage based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Of course, not everyone is on a 2,000-calorie diet. Those who are more active may consume more calories in a day, while those who are less active may consume considerably less to stay healthy. The 2,000-calorie diet is a general guideline to help you determine how much of a nutrient you’ll consume when eating one serving of food or drink, so while it can be helpful, it’s not necessarily accurate.
All packaged foods and beverages have an ingredient list to tell you exactly what’s in each product. This list may be most beneficial to those with a diet restriction or food allergy to help them avoid certain ingredients. This part of the label lists the ingredients in descending order by weight, so the ingredient that weighs the most is always listed first.
Common ingredients to watch out for include:
- Corn syrup
- Corn sweetener
- High fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners
All these ingredients are types of added sugar or sugar substitutes, which should be consumed in moderation.
How to Use the Nutritional Label
Now that you understand everything there is to know about the nutrition label on your foods and beverages, it’s time to start using them correctly to help you reach your health goals.
1. Know Your Daily Needs
Before using the nutrition label to help you lose or gain weight, you must know your daily caloric needs. You can get a general estimate from a calculator online or talk to your doctor to learn how many calories you should consume daily to lose, maintain, or gain weight. Your physician can also put together a plan to ensure you lose or gain weight healthily and can still get all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need through food, even if you’re cutting calories.
2. Understand Serving Size
We’ve already discussed serving size, so you should know what it means and how to calculate calories by eating one serving. For example, if you choose to eat only half of a serving, all you need to do is divide the serving size by two to learn how many calories you’ll consume.
Always use the serving size to help you gauge how much you’re eating. Since we all love food, we tend to go overboard every now and then, eating more calories than we need. So even though a serving size isn’t unique to your circumstances, it should still be used as a guide to help you calculate your daily calories.
3. Use the Percent Daily Values
Of course, the percent daily values are based on a 2000-calorie diet, so they’re not exactly accurate. Also, depending on your activity levels, weight, and height, you may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day, so you may need more or less than the 100% DV listed on the nutrition label. However, the percent DV can tell you whether a food or beverage item is low or high in a specific nutrient. For example, if you’re monitoring your fiber intake and trying to eat more fiber in your diet, you’ll want to look for foods high in fiber listed as 20% or more. Similarly, when you’re trying to avoid certain nutrients, like trans fat, you’ll want to look for products that are low in trans fat, containing 5% or less.
Making Healthier Choices
So how can a nutritional label help you? These labels provide important information about your diet, including the calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients you consume daily. It can also help you better plan your diet for weight loss journeys and identify added sugar that can be dangerous to your health.
Consider reading the food labels before buying to ensure you have healthy foods in your home whenever you get hungry. In addition, reading labels at the store will help you make better choices before you even begin cooking.
Ashley Nielsen earned a B.S. degree in Business Administration Marketing at Point Loma Nazarene University. She is a freelance writer who loves to share knowledge about general business, marketing, lifestyle, wellness, and financial tips. During her free time, she enjoys being outside, staying active, reading a book, or diving deep into her favorite music.
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