Have you ever looked at a nutrition label on a food item and thought you were reading something in a foreign language? If so, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, how to read nutrition labels isn’t always the easiest to decipher. They offer a lot of information that is valuable to your diet and wellness goals, but if you don’t know what you’re looking at, it does you no good.
What is a Nutrition Label?
The first step in learning how to read nutrition labels is knowing what exactly one is. A nutrition label is a label that the Food and Drug Administration requires to be on most packaged food and beverages. It provides nutrition information, including the number of calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars. In addition, it’s broken down by nutrient per serving and indicates the serving size and the number of servings per package.
Why are Nutrition Labels Important?
Nutrition labels are to help you make informed choices about the food you purchase and consume. Having labels allows you to compare items easily. In addition, they provide you with valuable information that assists you in maintaining a healthy diet by guiding you on which foods and beverages to buy. This is especially helpful for individuals with chronic conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.
How to Read a Nutrition Label
Reading the nutrition facts on a label can sometimes pose a challenge. The label is usually divided into sections: serving information, calories, and nutrients with daily value percentages.
When looking at a nutrition facts label, you will typically see the number of servings in the package, followed by the single serving size. Serving sizes are usually broken into standard measurements, such as cups or pieces.
All the nutrient amounts you see below the serving size, including the calorie count, refer to the serving size. So, for example, if your serving size is one cup and it lists 100 calories, that’s 100 calories for every cup you consume. Serving sizes are not the recommended consumption amount. It is just an easy metric amount to use and what most people typically eat or drink.
The next number on the nutritional label is the number of calories you get with each serving. Keeping track of calories is vital for managing your weight. Calories measure how much energy you get from a serving. However, more calories and more energy are not always better for you. If you consume more calories than your body needs and you do not burn those calories, your body turns them into fat. The number of calories you need will vary depending on age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level.
The biggest section you will see is the nutrients on the nutrition facts label. This section lists some of the main nutrients found in the item that can impact your health. These include dietary fiber, vitamin D, and calcium. It’s important to note, however, that not all the nutrients listed are good for you, nor do you always want higher values.
Saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium are “nutrients” often listed on nutrition labels that you want less of. These ingredients are usually associated with adverse health effects. They are linked to inflammation and multiple chronic diseases.
Percent of Daily Value
The following section goes hand-in-hand with the nutrient section. The nutrient section tells you how much of a specific nutrient is in the food or beverage item. Next to that number is a percentage. That is the percent daily value (%DV). The percent daily value shows the amount of a nutrient per serving of a food that contributes to a total daily diet.
Two thousand calories a day is used as a general guide for nutrition advice. Simply put, the percent daily value helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. It’s an excellent tool to help you make dietary trade-offs throughout the day. For example, if you consume an item slightly higher in saturated fat, you can balance it with foods low in saturated fats at other times during the day. In addition, the percentage makes it easy to keep tabs on whether you’re getting enough or too much of a nutrient.
Nutrition Label Variations
Some packages that are slightly larger than a single serving and can either be consumed in one sitting or a couple of sittings, such as a bag of pretzels or a pint of ice cream, may provide a dual-column label. A dual-column label is precisely what it says, two columns with nutritional facts. One column indicates the amounts of calories and nutrients per serving, and the second column shows the nutrient facts per unit or entire package.
Dual-column labels are convenient for packages that people often eat in one sitting. This is because they can easily see how many calories and nutrients they consume without having to do the math.
There is No One-Size-Fits-All
Learning how to read nutrition labels is a helpful tool for maintaining a healthy diet. But it’s important to understand that nutrition is not one-size-fits-all. Your nutritional needs are not the same as someone else. You may need more or less calories, or your diet may require higher percentages of vitamin D or potassium. Nutrition labels are for reference and guidance only. They help you make informed decisions for your individual health needs.
If you’re worried you’re not getting the proper nutrients in your daily diet, contact your VIPcare primary care provider for help. They’ll guide you in making the best and right decisions for you.