Reading nutrition labels can be intimidating and often times deceiving if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Here are eight things to pay close attention to when you’re making decisions about what to put in your body.
1. Serving Size
Many of us know a whole pint of ice cream contains more than one serving (some of us eat it all in one sitting anyway), but many foods and beverages contain a surprising (and unrealistic) serving size. For example, chips often have serving sizes that are unreasonably low – usually about 10 chips. Nutrition labels are calculated for one serving of a food. If you eat more than one serving, you’ll have to do some math, because once a serving size changes, everything on the label changes.
2. Calorie Count
The word “calories” has a negative connotation, but your body needs calories to produce energy (so you can do fun stuff like go for walks or work in your garden). As long as you are balancing the number of calories eaten and burned, you will maintain your weight. The number of calories you need per day is specific to your gender, activity level, and weight goals.
The number of calories in a serving of food is listed on the nutrition label, and directly next to the calorie count is a number showing calories from fat. Calories come from fats, proteins, or carbohydrates, with fat providing the most calories. Vitamins, minerals and indigestible fiber have no calories. A calorie is a calorie, regardless of where it comes from, but the source of calories does matter for health. For example, 100 calories in a big bowl of spinach come with lots of nutrients and fiber that will help fill you up, the 100 calories in one-third of a muffin have few nutrients, and are “empty” calories.
3. The Nutrients
You’re probably familiar with most of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals listed on a nutrition label, but some of them may not be so obvious. It’s worth doing research to fully understand what everything on the label means (including those sometimes mysterious ingredients listed at the bottom of the label).
Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
Eat more of: dietary fiber, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, iron
Eat less of: fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium
Studies have found that trans fats significantly increase your risk of heart disease, because it raises your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. High LDL levels may put you at risk for heart disease because the cholesterol collects in the walls of your blood vessels, where it can cause blockages. High sodium intake can also lead to heart disease by increasing blood pressure.
Food labels break down total fat into saturated fats and trans fats (stay away from these), and total carbohydrates are broken down into dietary fibers (the good stuff) and sugars (the not so good stuff).
%DV looks like another cryptic code, but it stands for percent of Daily Value and helps you understand how much of your daily dietary needs are being met by a certain food. %DV represents the percentage of a nutrient in one serving of a food in terms of the recommend amount of each nutrient per day. (Remember to think of this as per day and not just per meal.)
You’ll see a %DV next to things like carbohydrates, sodium, and dietary fiber on the label. The percentage makes it easy to compare nutrients in different foods as long as the serving sizes are similar. Aim for a percentage of 20% or more for nutrients you want to consume more of (like calcium) and look for a %DV of 5% or less in nutrients you want less of (like sodium). %DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which may differ a bit from your daily caloric intake.
5. Ingredient List
This is the most important part for knowing exactly what you’re eating. Food companies sometimes use cryptic language and make it confusing to figure out. For instance, there are a lot of words that really just mean sugar. Ingredients are listed in order of the amount present in the food, so the first ingredient makes up the largest percentage and the last, the lowest.
Our friend Michael Pollan has a few great recommendations in his book “Food Rules”:
- Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third‐grader cannot pronounce.
- Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
- Eat foods made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature
- Avoid food products that have more than 5 ingredients.
6. Flours: Enriched, Bleached, Whole Wheat
Enriched flour is in the majority of packaged food products you see on grocery shelves, but the name is definitely deceiving. “Enriched” flour actually has been stripped of nutrients during the refinement process, but B vitamins, iron, and sometimes calcium are added back in.
Bleached flour is turned from yellow to white using chemicals such as chlorine or benzoyl peroxide to oxidize the flour. Your body reacts to these refined carbs the same way it would to sugar!
For healthier, naturally nutrient-rich grain products, look for 100% whole wheat in the ingredients. Unbleached whole wheat flour offers higher fiber and protein for a similar amount of calories, so you’ll feel fuller for a longer period of time.
7. “Reduced” and “low”
These two words don’t mean the same thing and can be misleading. A food labeled as “reduced” simply means it contains at least 25 percent less of something, but doesn’t necessarily mean it has a low amount of it. For example, reduced fat sliced cheese may have 33% less fat than the full fat cheese, but it still has more than half its calories coming from fat and contains 11% of your daily recommended intake of saturated fat! And often, reduced ingredients are simply replaced with other, more unhealthy ingredients – like fat being replaced with sugar. No matter what the front of the label says in big bold letters, always check the actual numbers and serving size.
8. “Zero” and “free”
This one tidbit may have you questioning everything: labeling laws allow any food with 0.5 grams or less of an ingredient to claim “0 grams” or “[insert ingredient] free” on the label. Surprise – sugar free candy, cookies, and ice cream aren’t carb free or calorie free. Foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat can be labeled trans fat free or say zero grams, but if you eat that food frequently, the trans fat can build up to be much more than zero grams. The only way to tell is a food is really free of something is to check the ingredients list.
While these are a great jumping off point, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reading nutrition labels. Ultimately, it’s worth doing research to find out what ingredients and nutrients make the most difference for your diet and health condition, and pay special attention to those items on nutrition labels the next time you’re wandering the aisles of the grocery store.