Should you be reading every nutrition facts label on each food item you buy? This registered dietitian says, YES! It is always a great idea to be aware of the food you are consuming. Simply by reading through the nutrition facts label and the ingredients list, you will be making healthier choices! Follow along with these descriptions as we use our Peanut Butter Perfect Bar Nutrition Fact Label and Ingredient List as a helpful guide.
What to look for in each section of the Nutrition Facts Label:
A standardized amount of a food, such as one cup or an ounce. Serving size on the Nutrition Facts label is determined based on the Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACC) for foods that have similar dietary usage, product characteristics, and customarily consumed amounts for consumers to make “like product” comparisons.
- 1 package or a box is not always the serving size that the label is regarding. Always make sure to see how much one serving contains. For example, some cereals have a serving size that is ¾ cup while others have 1 cup per serving. If you want to compare two cereals, make sure you look at the serving size first so you know where to expect differences.
- Everyone needs a different amount of calories per day depending on our age, sex, and activity level. As a general rule from the FDA, 40 calories, 100 calories and 400 calories are low, moderate, and high respectively. If you want to see what your average recommended calories are, check out this link!
A macronutrient and a source of energy for our bodies. Fat provides 9 calories for every gram. This macronutrient is the most calorie dense, therefore; we need it in lesser amounts. The recommendation is generally 20-35% fat calories in your daily diet. Not all fats are created equal! Unsaturated fats are the best regarding heart health. Make sure to notice the different types of fat on a nutrition label:
- Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFAs): Fatty acids that have one double bond and are usually liquid at room temperature. Plant sources rich in MUFAs include vegetable oils (e.g., canola, olive, and sunflower), as well as nuts.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs): Fatty acids that have two or more double bonds and are usually liquid at room temperature. Primary sources are vegetable oils and some nuts and seeds, including avocados. PUFAs provide essential fats for our body.
- Saturated fatty acids: Fatty acids that have no double bonds. Fats high in saturated fatty acids are usually solid at room temperature (butter, lard, meat fat, etc.) Major sources include animal products such as meats and dairy products, and oils such as coconut or palm oil. < 10% of our total calories should come from saturated sources.
- Trans fatty acids: Unsaturated fatty acids that are structurally different from the unsaturated fatty acids that occur naturally in plant foods. Sources of trans fatty acids include partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used in processed foods such as desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, some margarines, and coffee creamer. Most of the time you will see labels promoting zero grams trans fat – this is where you need to be careful. Even if the label reads 0g trans fat, it can legally contain up to 0.5 g of trans fat without the food company having to disclose that information. A trick around this is to read the ingredients label: if any ingredient listed has hydrogenated or any derivative of the word hydrogenation, it means the product includes trans fat aka avoid!
Dietary cholesterol is found in foods of animal origin, including meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Plant foods, such as grains, vegetables, fruits, and oils do not contain any dietary cholesterol.
- The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for cholesterol is 300 mg. Meaning, we should not consume anymore than a total of 300 mg of cholesterol per day. It is always a good idea, to read each part of the nutrition label, including cholesterol!
Sodium is an electrolyte pertinent to our health for our muscles and nerves to function properly. However, sodium is often over consumed in the US and can cause high blood pressure along with other heart conditions.
- Limit this number as much as possible. Food labels with lower sodium are healthier! Sodium can cause hypertension (high blood pressure), which can lead to multiple heart problems. It is best to consume fresh foods over processed foods because processed foods tend to have high amounts of sodium. The reason being, sodium is a great preservative and most processed foods have excess sodium contents to keep foods fresher for a longer period of time. If you want to buy soup or beans make sure to go for the “low sodium” or “no salt added” kind.
The macronutrient that is our main source of energy providing 4 calories per gram. Majority of our diet consists of carbohydrates. The more active and young you are, the more carbohydrates you will need daily.
- Dietary Fiber: we should have at least 14g of fiber for every 1000 calories.
- Dietary fiber consists of nondigestible carbohydrates and lignin that are intact in plants (i.e., the fiber naturally occurring in foods).
- Added Sugar : the recommendation is to consume < 10% of our total calories from added sugars.
- Naturally occurring sugars such as those in fruit or milk are not added sugars. Specific examples of added sugars that can be listed as an ingredient include: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose, and turbinado sugar. Avoid added sugars as much as possible. Consuming natural forms of sugar in fruits is much better for your health and can limit excess weight gain.
On nutrition labels, vitamin content is provided as the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving, in terms of the daily recommended amount
- %DV: as an RD this label is not of use to most people because Nutrition Facts labels are based off of 2,000 calorie diets and majority of people are not on a 2000 calorie diet. Therefore, it is best to avoid those numbers to eliminate the confusion they would bring.
- However, you can look at the percentages to gather an idea of whether or not a food product is nutrient dense or not. If you see a bunch of 0% next to the vitamins listed, it is a good indicator of a poor food choice.
- Also, not all vitamins are required to be on nutrition facts labels so the labels are not giving a well-rounded view.
What to look for in each section of the Ingredient List:
As defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the deliberate addition of one or more essential nutrients to a food, whether or not it is normally contained in the food. Fortification may be used to prevent or correct a demonstrated deficiency in the population or specific population groups; restore naturally occurring nutrients lost during processing, storage, or handling; or to add a nutrient to a food at the level found in a comparable traditional food. When cereal grains are labeled as enriched, it is mandatory that they be fortified with folic acid.
A characteristic of foods and beverages that provide vitamins, minerals, and other substances that contribute to adequate nutrient intakes or may have positive health effects, with little or no solid fats and added sugars, refined starches, and sodium. Ideally, these foods and beverages also are in forms that retain naturally occurring components, such as dietary fiber. All vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry—when prepared with little or no added solid fats, sugars, refined starches, and sodium—are nutrient-dense foods. These foods contribute to meeting food group recommendations within calorie and sodium limits. The term “nutrient dense” indicates the nutrients and other beneficial substances in a food have not been “diluted” by the addition of calories from added solid fats, sugars, or refined starches, or by the solid fats naturally present in the food.
One of the macronutrients; a major functional and structural component of every animal cell. Proteins are composed of amino acids, nine of which are indispensable (essential), meaning they cannot be synthesized by humans and therefore must be obtained from the diet. The quality of dietary protein is determined by its amino acid profile relative to human requirements as determined by the body’s requirements for growth, maintenance, and repair. Protein quality is determined by two factors: digestibility and amino acid composition.
Grains and grain products with the bran and germ removed; any grain product that is not a whole-grain product. Many refined grains are low in fiber but enriched with thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron, and fortified with folic acid.
Grains and grain products made from the entire grain seed, usually called the kernel, which consists of the bran, germ, and endosperm. If the kernel has been cracked, crushed, or flaked, it must retain the same relative proportions of bran, germ, and endosperm as the original grain in order to be called whole grain. Many, but not all, whole grains are also sources of dietary fiber.