Cracking the Code: Nutrition Labels
Understanding these 8 key values will change the way you shop.
Ever notice that one person at the grocery store who’s intently reading the back of each can, box and package before deciding whether to place it in the cart or shove it back on the shelf with a hint of repulsion? That, my friends, is someone who has unlocked one of the great mysteries of life: how to decipher a nutrition label.
“Food labels are hard to understand because there is a lot of information on them,” says Jennifer Christman, RDN, LDN, clinical nutrition director at Medifast. “However, the label only gives the information, but does not tell the consumer how to interpret it. The information is there, but if you don’t know what you are looking at, it’s worthless.”
Fear not — we’ve got your crash course in nutrition labels 101 right here. Sure, your next food shopping outing might take a bit longer than usual, but soon it will become second nature.
Serving size. ϐ examine when comparing two items. Is this a serving size you would typically consume? If the serving sizes are the same on the two different products, next you can compare nutrients. Are calories lower in one versus the other? “If you are comparing spaghetti sauce, for instance, I would look at sugar and sodium content and choose the lower of the two,” says Christman. “If you are looking at cookies, I may choose the lower calorie and fat cookies for the same serving size. And if you are comparing two yogurts, you may want to choose yogurt with less added sugar, but higher in calcium.”
Daily Value. Beware of the tricky DV numbers — they represent the percentage for various nutrients in a serving of the food, based on a 2,000-calories-a-day diet. Since individuals require different calorie levels, Daily Value percentages may be hard to interpret if one product has a vastly higher or lower calorie count per serving. You’ll need to do some math to ϐ your usual or desired caloric intake.
Low-fat or reduced fat. These words, while great marketing gimmicks on foods like cookies and peanut butter, should immediately raise ϐ ȋ you can double your consumption). “These food items may be lower in fat; however, they end up being higher in added sugar,” says Christman. “The new food labels set to launch in 2018 will help to address some of this confusion by changing serving sizes and addressing added sugars.”
Total fat grams. While it’s important to look at total fat grams, Christman is less concerned about heart-healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, than saturated fats, which can raise LDL ȋ ȍ Ǥ
Sugar. Beyond the nutrition label, take a closer look at the listed ingredients to avoid high amounts of added sugar. Typically foods that end in “ose,” like fructose, dextrose, maltose and sucrose, are synonyms and contribute to added sugar.
Salt. Avoid excess sodium added to foods. Hidden sources of sodium include baking soda, baking pow ǡ ȋ Ȍǡ disodium phosphate or salt. If you’re focusing on limiting sodium in your daily intake, look for foods with a daily value of 5 percent or less per serving. Higher sodium foods will be 20 percent or more.
Carbohydrates. This includes all sug ϐ ǡ Ǧϐ Ǥ - ple, when purchasing bread, look for bread made from whole grains with 3 ϐ Ǥ
Positioning matters. When looking at ingredient lists, items appearing ϐ * Ǥ ǡ when eating whole foods, this isn’t as much of an issue. But, when consuming more processed or packaged foods take a closer look at the ingredient list.
ϐ ǡ sugar or sources of sodium listed ϐ Ǥ
Learn how to decipher food labels to make healthier choices.