What to Look Out for When Reading Nutrition Labels


Understanding Nutrition Labels:


Nutrition Labels have been on foods since 1991; about 11 years after the 1980 dietary guidelines were released. Now with new dietary guidelines released in 2015, the FDA is proposing updates to the nutrition facts label, which will likely include listing the added sugar content of foods. But many people still may not understand the basics of nutrition facts labels, so here are some tips to help.


To understand food nutrition labels, you first need to know what information is on a food label. First, look at the top of the nutrition facts label. This tells you what a serving of that food is, and how many servings are in the total package. For example, if a serving of juice is ½ cup (4 oz.) and the bottle contains 16 ounces of juice, then you you need to take the total amount of calories and other nutrients and multiply them by the number of servings in the package (4 in this case) to know how many calories and nutrients you are getting if you consume the whole package.


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Next, it’s important to understand the % daily value means the amount of the nutrient contained in one serving of that product provides towards a 2000 calorie a day diet. Keep in mind the amount of calories and nutrients that you need may be more or less depending on your age, sex, weight, and activity level. This makes it a bit complicated, doesn’t it?


To simplify your decisions, it might be easiest to look at the total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium and choose items that are low in these nutrients, less than 5% per serving, because most people need to limit these nutrients. Remember that just because it may say that it contains no trans fats, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain any at all, it just contains less than 0.5 grams of this unhealthy fat per serving. It’s best to look at the ingredients and avoid any food that contains partially hydrogenated oils to completely eliminate trans fats.


You also want to look for healthy ingredients and nutrients in a food. You can do this by looking at the amount of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, potassium and Iron the food contains and choosing items that are higher in these nutrients, more than 20% per serving when possible. Most people need more of these nutrients. Not all nutrients are required on the label, therefore some labels list more nutrients than other labels do, simply because the manufacturers choose to list them.


Understanding the carbohydrate and sugar portion of the labels can be the most difficult. The carbohydrate amount lists the total amount of carbohydrates per serving and includes the amount of sugars, both added and natural sugars, dietary fiber and sugar alcohols in a serving of that food. For example, one cup of 1% milk contains about 13 grams of sugar, which is naturally found in milk. Compare this to chocolate milk, which has about 11 grams of added sugar for a total of 24 grams of sugar. Although fiber is also listed, fiber doesn’t get digested by your body, and therefore doesn’t raise blood sugar levels like sugars do.


Hopefully this information helps you better understand how to read and understand nutrition facts labels. If you would like more information about carbohydrate values on nutrition facts labels, check out diabetes.org. Or, to learn more about the fat portion of labels, check out www.heart.org.

Jennifer M. Wood, MS, RD

Jennifer M Wood, MS, RDN is registered dietitian nutritionist and successful food and nutrition consultant in Southeastern Minnesota. As the founder of a nation-wide gourmet food company, Wood wrote Jenny’s Country Kitchen…recipes for making homemade a little easier! (2003), which is a timeless collection of make-ahead, freeze-ahead and pantry-stocking recipes and time saving tips to help busy families put nutritious food on table. Wood graduated with a pre-med bachelors degree in nutritional science in 2001, completed her dietetic internship in 2007 and went on to complete a master’s degree in food and nutrition in 2011.

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