How To Properly Read Nutrition Labels

by Samira Adams - December 20, 2012

how-to-properly-read-nutrition-labels

Properly reading a nutrition label is a major key to staying in control of the calories, fats, sugars and other nutrients you consume daily. In lieu of reading the nutrition label, we can put our trust in the catch phrases on the front of the packages such as Reduced Fat, Low Sodium, or Low Calorie – all very exciting buzzwords for the health conscious. Our brains seem to be hardwired to believe that these sayings mean something good, and we can sometimes indulge in less-than-healthy foods based on our interpretation of such phrases.

So, even though phrases such as “Reduced Fat” might sound attractive enough to make you confidently grab a bag of snacks off of the grocery store shelf, these phrases do not truly inform you of what you’re actually putting into your body. So you can make well-informed decisions, let’s take a moment to revamp your diet vocabulary and soak up a some knowledge about what  package buzzwords and values on nutrition labels mean to your health.

Buzzwords Defined:

Reduced: When a phrase beginning with the word reduced is printed on a label, it doesn’t mean that it is low in that particular ingredient. Reduced only means that the manufacturers have figured out how to remove at least 25% of that ingredient from the product (fitday.com). So, a bag of reduced fat potato chips has at least 25% less fat than the original version; however, you must also remember that they still contain some fat that must be monitored and kept under control.

High: When referring to nutrients such as fiber or protein, high just means that each serving contains at least 20% of the recommended daily value of the specified nutrient (Zeratsky).This can be a good thing since most companies are only going to advertise being high in any particular ingredient when they think it will appeal to shoppers.


Low: In the same sense, the word low doesn’t mean you should jump in head first and eat all you want. When referring to things such as fat or sodium, low just means that each serving contains less than 5% of the recommended daily value of the specified nutrient (Zeratsky).  This one can be tricky, because the word low can be so appealing to those on a mission to keep their diets in check.

What to pay attention to on nutrition labels:

Number of servings:

One of the most important pieces of information to locate on a nutrition label is the number of servings per container (American Heart Association). The rest of the information on the label gives you the facts on a per-serving basis. So, if a label claims that a product contains 50 calories and 3 servings per container, the entire container contains 150 calories. Not paying attention to the number of servings per container has been a contributing factor to many botched diets.

Number of Calories:

We know this one very well, but it can’t be overstated. The number of calories per serving is greatly important as is the number of calories from fat per serving. If you’re eating Twinkie, almost a third of the 150 calories you consume will be from fat (about.com). So, pay attention to both numbers which are near the top of the label.

Fats, Cholesterol  & Sodium:

In about the middle of the label, you’ll see the fats, cholesterol, and sodium. The FDA recommends minimizing your consumption of these nutrients. The labels show the percentage of each item based on a 2,000 calorie diet. There is 13% of your daily recommended value of saturated fat in that beloved Twinkie. The lower the percentage of these nutrients in your food, the more your body will thank you.

Vitamins and minerals:

The vitamins and minerals are near the bottom of the label and are clearly marked (Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Iron, etc.).  Aim higher with these ingredients, because they are where we get our nourishment.  Since our study Twinkie contains 0% of most of these nutrients, we can probably agree that foods like this should be minimized as they contain high fat calories, high saturated fat and low (or non-existent) levels of nutritious vitamins and minerals.

Footnote:

The footnote on the very bottom of the nutrition labels are the general values that the FDA recommends based on a certain number of calories. These are not specific to any food, just a general table based on caloric intake. When present, these footnotes are the same across the board (fitday.com).

Foods that you wouldn’t even think about eating can seem more acceptable when they are marked as with such attractive phrases as reduced fat or low sodium.  Since they can be so tricky, though, don’t take them at face value. Thoroughly reading the nutrition label, and making a decision based on your knowledge of the product can greatly benefit your diet and overall health.

Sources:

American Heart Association (2010, September 1). American heart assoication. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HeartSmartShopping/Reading-Food-Nutrition-Labels_UCM_300132_Article.jsp

Calorie count. (2011). Retrieved from http://caloriecount.about.com/calories-hostess-twinkies-i113361

Fitday (2011). Nutrient Content and Percent Daily Value Misconceptions Retrieved from http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/vitamins-minerals/nutrient-content-and-percent-daily-value-misconceptions.html

Us Food and Drug Administration. (2011, May 23). Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/NFLPM/ucm274593.htm#twoparts

Zeratsky, K. (2012, May 5). Mayo clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/food-and-nutrition/AN00284

Samira Adams Samira Adams is a freelance writer and health enthusiast who resides in San Diego County. She has earned her degree in communication studies with a writing emphasis. Among her other work, Samira has health and fitness articles in publications such as the San Diego Entertainer Magazine.
by Samira Adams