Nutrition is confusing. You hear conflicting advice everywhere, the terminology is like a foreign language (macros, carbs, omega-3 fatty acids, etc), and just when you think you might have it figured out, it all changes again.
One of the first steps in improving your nutrition is to understand exactly what you are eating by reading food labels. I am going to run through a step by step guide on what to look for in a food label. Unfortunately, all countries have different guidelines for labeling food however the same principles generally apply. I will focus on the US food label but note, this is due to change in the next few years (2018) so I will also highlight the proposed changes.
1. Calories and Serving Size
When looking at a label, the first thing I look at is calories and serving size (highlighted in pink). This must be looked at together as quite often, the calories described are nowhere near your expectation of a serving size. In fact, this is one of the changes due to take place in 2018. In many products, serving size will increase to better reflect usual consumption.
In this case, you have 230 calories in a serving of 2/3 cup. The assumption is that the container will be split into 8 servings so you can quickly eyeball what proportion you plan on eating and use the information provided to help you decide how this equates in terms of calories- and its often surprising!
2. Carbohydrates (Fiber & Added Sugar)
As we have learned in my previous blog, The Truth About Sugar, we need to be cautious of our added sugar intake therefore I would next look at the carbohydrate breakdown (in red). The label gives the total grams of carbohydrates (37g) and also a percentage of daily value (DV) (12%). This percentage of DV is based on a diet which is 60% carbohydrate (or 300g for a 2000 calorie diet as shown in red at the bottom of the label).
Below that, carbohydrates are broken down into sugar and fiber. The suggested fiber intake is 25g/day for a 2000 calorie diet so you can see that at 4g, this food is providing 16% of your daily requirement.
Now, the sugar bit of the label is where improvements are needed (and will occur in 2018). New sugar guidelines suggest we should be eating less than 10% of added sugar per day. For a 2000 calorie diet, this equates to 50g (remember, 4calories/g of carbohydrate- see Nutrition 101). This label does not separate out natural sugar from added sugar. You see 12g of sugar but it’s impossible to accurately tally up your added sugar as some/all of this may be naturally occurring sugar. Until the new label comes out, you have to read the list of ingredients to get an idea of added sugar. Ingredient are listed in order of quantity so if sugar (or any of the other words for sugar (see The Truth About Sugar) are high in the list, you know to eat sparingly. If you are eating whole, unprocessed food though, it’s easy to tell there are minimal added sugars!
Next, I would look at fats (in orange). Most importantly, we look for trans fats- we don’t want any in our diet! The label also lists saturated fat and the % of DV (which is set at no more than 10%). Again, we want to limit the amount of saturated fat in the diet (for more information see The complex world of dietary fat; what’s the latest!?). Next to Calories, you also see ‘Calories from Fat’ however this will be removed in the new labeling as type of fat is more important than amount of fat.
Sodium (in green) is another very important part of the label to examine. The average American is consuming 3440mg, significantly more than the recommended 2300mg. Hidden sodium is often found in high levels in processed food so it’s important to 1. avoid processed food, and 2. check the label!
5. Vitamins and Minerals
The bottom part of the label shows DV% of 4 vitamins and minerals that people were at risk of deficiency in the 1990 (Vit A, Vit C, iron and calcium). However, some of these are also set to change with the new labeling. Vitamin D and potassium, now considered to be a greater risk of deficiency, will replace Vitamin C and vitamin A. Iron and calcium will remain in the new label. In addition, their amounts will be expressed with absolute amounts (not just % DV). The inclusion of all other vitamins and minerals are optional.
Keep in mind…
It’s important to note that food labels are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Therefore, if your caloric needs are more or less than that, your needs may not be accurately reflected on these labels. For example, if you need 3000 calories per day, 60% carbohydrate would be 450g, not 300g (4 calories/g of carbohydrate; see Nutrition 101: Understanding Macro and Micronutrients and What They Do for Your Body for details). To calculate your estimated daily caloric needs, see http://www.thecalculatorsite.com/health/bmr-calculator.php. These are only guidelines as well and therefore you may aspire for a different macronutrient breakdown and still be within recommended ranges.
Lastly, I want to point out the importance of looking at the list of ingredients. Remember, the less processed (i.e. less additives, salt, sugar, etc), the better for you. Look at how long the list of ingredients is. Do you know what they all are? Can you pronounce them? Do you feel ok about feeding them to your loved ones?
There are many things beyond our control about our health, but this is one thing we have control over. Companies are legally required to label their food but its up to you to learn what to do with this knowledge. Be aware. Be balanced. Eat in moderation. Feel good about what you put into your body.
Written by Dr. Tara Coletta, PhD
Tara's research focused on obesity and metabolism. She studied exercise science (MS, UMass Amherst) before earning a PhD in nutritional biochemistry (Tufts University). Wellness remains an integral part of Tara’s life as she works to balance being a mother of three.