Let’s face it, reading food labels can be downright confusing. They are hard to find, hard to read, and at times overwhelming. Serving size? Percent daily value? And why is it all in metric units when all of America has grown up with cups, teaspoons, and gallons? Answering these questions requires some investigative skills and a keen eye. Much like any skill, however, practice makes perfect. Reading a food label can be quick and effective if you have a system and know what to look for.
Credit: Forrest Hierholzer
Let’s Begin with Serving Size
Serving size is located at the top of the label. At restaurants, serving size will be the entire entrée or plate. At grocery stores, the serving size can vary. Individually-sold items generally include the entire package as one serving size, such as a personal bag of chips or container of yogurt. Bulk items, however, such as cereals, and liters of soda often include multiple servings per container. If you eat more than the indicated serving size, you will need to multiply all the nutrient information by the number of servings eaten. As an example, if you eat an entire box of rice pilaf, you may have eaten 4.5 servings. Thus, you will have to multiply all the nutrient information on the label by 4.5.
It should also be noted that scientists have indicated that people are more likely to eat larger portions when provided with larger servings. The FDA has now mandated changes to the food label, including serving size, which will take effect in 2018. Here is a brief overview of the changes, along with how the new label will look.
What About Percent Daily Value?
Percent daily value is a percentage that refers to how much of each nutrient is present in 1 serving of food, compared to a person’s overall daily diet. The percentages are calculated based off what the Institute of Medicine refers to as the “dietary reference intakes (DRIs)”. These recommendations are supposed to account for what a normal healthy adult needs each day in their diet. Not only do the DRIs recommend a 2000 calorie diet per day, but they also list specific recommendations for macronutrients, as well as vitamins and minerals. The DRIs are located at the bottom of the label with the statement, “based on a 2000 calorie diet per day.” When you see percent daily values on a food label, you are seeing the percentage of each nutrient in reference to the DRIs, which dictate the total amount of each nutrient you should get per day. It should be noted, however, that restaurants may not include percent daily values on labels.
Sometimes practice helps. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a daily reference intake of 1,500 mg of sodium per day. If you eat 1 serving size of food with a “percent daily value” of sodium being 50%, this means that half of your daily recommended intake of sodium (750 mg) is present in one serving of that item.
Now to Macronutrients
You will see macronutrients listed in this order: total fats, total carbohydrates, and total protein. Macronutrients are a vital part of every food label, but they also can be the most overwhelming. Here are some tips for reading labels at fast food stops, restaurants, or even the grocery store.
Processed foods tend to have more refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and sodium. These foods are best to limit in order to avoid excess calories with low nutritional value.
USDA Organic does not necessarily mean pesticide-free; it means the food has been produced according to organic specifications, which allows natural and some synthetic use of chemicals.
Gluten-free means the item does not contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and other starch products. The FDA has encouraged restaurants to comply with this federal definition of gluten-free, in order to better protect consumers who may suffer from celiac disease or have gluten allergies.
Tips for fats
Low-fat items tend to have more carbohydrates. When fat is taken out of a product, food chemists have to account for taste and texture. By adding sugar, food chemists can preserve the marketability of the food product to consumers.
The difference between saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans-fats is the chemical structure of each molecule. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, unsaturated fats are oils, and trans fats are oils that can be turned into solids at room temperature. Examples of each are listed here.
Tips for carbs
Total carbohydrates are not the same as net carbohydrates, which reflect the amount of carbohydrates that are actually absorbed as sugar into our bloodstream. To calculate the quantity of net carbohydrates, subtract dietary fiber from total carbohydrates. Thus, if you are eating a tortilla with 19 grams of total carbohydrates and 13 grams of dietary fiber, the total carbohydrates impacting blood sugar are 6 net carbohydrates.
When counting carbs, it may be easier to convert into teaspoons. Did you know that 4 grams of net carbohydrates is equal to 1 teaspoon of sugar? This means, if you drink a soda with 36 grams of carbohydrates, this is equivalent to 9 teaspoons of sugar.
Tips for protein
A "high protein" label is allowed on foods if the food product contains more than 20% of the recommended daily value for protein. This does not mean that the food item has more protein than carbohydrates or fats. The reference is solely related to the DRIs, as mentioned above.
Almost Done, Vitamins and Minerals
The bottom of the food label is where you will find micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals. Currently, the only micronutrients required by the US Government to be listed on food labels include vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. At restaurants, these may not be shown, as stores are only required to note calories, macronutrients, and sodium. Vitamins can be fat-soluble (A, D, E, & K), as well as water soluble (B3,B6,B12, & C). Minerals included are calcium, sodium, iron, and potassium.
Tips for vitamins
Vitamins A, D, & B12 are more abundant in animal products, while vitamins E, K, B3, B6, & C are primarily found in plant products.
Recent studies have indicated American consumers are at higher risk for both vitamin D and calcium deficiency. Due to this public concern, the new FDA label of 2018 has been designed to reflect this.
Labels and menus reflect a large amount of information, but do not let all this information confound you! Nutrition scientists and public policymakers are now seeking methods to better inform consumers of nutrient content. With the new label changes for 2018, more restaurants will be required to update menus for nutrient information. Another plus side is the use of smartphone compatible apps that now can track food intake, even while eating out. Specific diet requirements or food allergies may require more extensive label reading, and/or guidance from medical providers. With a little practice, reading food labels can be the best way to stay informed, and make healthy choices.
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