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How to Read a Nutrition Label

The road to becoming health conscious has its many steep hills to climb. One of these hills is learning how to read a nutrition label. At first glance, a nutrition label looks like a jumble of words and meaningless numbers. Though the elements of the labels seem random, the system is really quite simple. A nutrition label can be broken down into six sections.

Full nutrition label with the sections listed to the right. The top section is the serving size. The second section is calories. The third section lists 14 foods and minerals with gram measurements and the percentage of how much this example food product will fulfill recommended amounts for the 14 foods and minerals. The last section is the footnote. The footnotes explains how the whole label is based of a 2,000 calorie per day diet.

1. Serving Size

The serving size is right under the “Nutrition Facts” title.  The bolded line is the recommended serving size for that food product. The serving size is listed in a simple measurement, such as cups and pieces, with its grams or ounces equivalent. For example, a serving size may read 2/3 cup (55g). This means a serving size is two thirds of a cup and 55 grams is the number of grams of the product in that single serving. The two measurements allow for easy comparison between similar products. Additionally, if you want to be really accurate with your servings, weigh the food until you get the gram or other metric amount on the label. Filling a measuring cup can produce different weights depending on how much it is filled, the size of the pieces, and other factors. For accuracy use the metric serving size number.

The title of the nutrition label is Nutrition Facts. Underneath the title is serving size information. On this example label, it reads: 8 servings per container. Underneath this it reads: serving size two thirds cup (55g).

Above the serving size is the serving per container. If you were to consume two servings of a food, then the serving size and all the numbers on the nutrition label would be doubled.

2. Calories

The calories are listed under the heading “Amount per serving.” The calorie section tell you how many calories are in one serving of the food. Calories is calculated using the three macros: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. One method used was developed by Wilbur Atwater in the 19th century. It is known as the 4-9-4 system. He discovered that protein and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, while fat has 9 calories per gram.

In our example, we have 8 grams of fat, 37 grams of carbohydrates, and 3 grams of protein. The 4-9-4 systems calculates calories in this way: 8 x 9= 72 fat calories, 37 x 4=148 carbohydrate calories, and 3 x 4=12 protein calories, then add 72+148+12= 232. This is two over the listed calories. Some food’s calories are hard to calculate, so the FDA allows for a 20% margin of error. Also, all labels have calories rounded to end in either a 0 or a 5.

The number of calories for this example container is 230. Above the calories, the label reads: amount per serving.

3. Nutrients

The nutrition facts begin just under the calorie section. This section takes up most of the label for good reason. Most Americans consume more calories than needed without meeting nutritional requirements.

Total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates and protein are all bolded. The indented nutrients belong to the category of the nutrient they are directly under. Of the bolded terms, total fat, cholesterol, and sodium are nutrients that should be limited. Eating too much of these three nutrients can raise the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancers, and high blood pressure. Keep the consumption of these nutrients as low as possible.

For those on a low carb or keto diet, consuming a lot of fat is key. Keep in mind there is bad fat and good fat. The types of fat you want to avoid are saturated and trans fat. In the example below, saturated and trans fat are only a gram of the 8 total grams of fat. The other 7 should be be good fat.

The nutrient section of the nutrition label has 14 foods and vitamins listed. Total fats at 8 grams. Indented beneath total fats is saturated fats at 1 gram and trans fats at 0 grams. Next is cholesterol at zero milligrams. Below cholesterol is sodium at 150 milligrams. Next is total carbohydrates at 37 grams. Indented beneath total carbohydrates is dietary fibers at 4 grams, total sugars at 12 grams, and indented under totals sugars is includes 10 grams of added sugars. Next is protein at 3 grams. The last four are strictly vitamins and minerals. They are separated from the previous foods by a thick black line. The first vitamin is Vitamin D at 2 micro-grams. Next is calcium at 260 milligrams. The third is iron at 8 milligrams. The last is potassium at 235 milligrams.

Also, part of the nutrients section are the vitamins and mineral listed underneath protein: Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium. Two years ago, Vitamin A and Vitamin C were on the label instead of Vitamin D and potassium. The FDA made this change because Vitamin A and C deficiencies are rare today. Vitamin D and potassium replaced them as nutrients that Americans often consume under the recommended amounts.

4 and 5. Percentage Daily Value and the Footnote

The percentages on the right side of the nutrition label tell you how much of a nutrient you are consuming, but in a different way than the gram amount next to the nutrients. The percentages indicate how much of the specific nutrient is in a serving to fulfill the total amount your body needs.

The daily values are listed to the rights side of all the nutrients. Total fats reads 10%, saturated fats 5%, cholesterol 0%, sodium 7%, total carbohydrates 13%, dietary fats 14%, added sugars 20%, Vitamin D 10%, calcium 20%, iron 45%, potassium 6%

The footnote at the bottom of the label describes how to read the percentages. When the footnotes says “daily diet” it means the daily recommended amount of that nutrient. Remember, fat, cholesterol, and sodium should stay under the recommended amount to lower health risks.

The footnote links with a star next to Daily percentages. The footnote reads: The percent daily value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet of 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.

When reading the percentages, keep in mind that 5% or less is low and 20% or more is high. The percentages can help you balance your diet. Let’s say you really want a favorite snack that is high in sodium. Make sure other food you consume throughout the day have low amounts of sodium. Making trade-offs using the nutrition label will allow you to feel a little more flexible with what food you can consume. Always work toward eating the recommended amount of each nutrient per day with a focus on the vitamins and minerals.

6. Nutrients with Percentage of Daily Value

Now, the only confusing part left is the nutrients without a percentage daily value: trans fat, total sugar, and protein. Trans fat and total sugar do not have a percentage because there is no recommended daily amount for either of them. But since the two are a big part of fat and carbohydrates, respectively, they need to be on the label. For these two nutrients, simply compare the grams with similar products and try to choose the one with the least amount. Trans fat and sugar lead to many health issues such as obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease. It is better to lower your consumption of trans fat and sugar as much as possible.

Added sugar, however, does have a daily value. Added sugars have undergone thorough examination. Most added sugars are notoriously bad for your body, but they are in almost everything. Added sugars tend to lead to overeating and many health concerns. Following the recommended daily amount of added sugars will help you avoid those issues.

Protein does not have a percentage because the consumption of protein is not seen as a health concern. Protein is essential for maintaining muscle mass and repairing your body, so protein is good to eat adequate amounts of. The only times protein has a percentage is when the product claims being high in protein or the product is intended for infants or children under the age of 4.

Now that you can read the nutrition label, you can use it to not only cut back on certain nutrients, but also to increase your consumption of much needed nutrients.

References

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Labeling & Nutrition - How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm

Fantozzi, J. (2018, June 13). How Are Calorie Counts Calculated? Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/62808-how-calories-are-calculated.html

Madell, R. (2016, January 20). Good Fats vs. Bad Fats: Everything You Need to Know. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/heart-disease/good-fats-vs-bad-fats#5

Zaring, S. (n.d.). FDA Food Label Nutrients Without a DV. Retrieved from https://www.emetabolic.com/locations/centers/bentonville/blog/eat-well/fda_food_label_nutrients_without_a_dv/


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