Many of us think we’re pretty sharp when it comes to reading and understanding “Nutrition Facts” labels on our food, but it’s all too easy to get lost in the numbers (or just pay attention to the calories or fat – which can be a pitfall).
Here’s what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends when it comes to reading a label:
The labels on our food aren’t color-coded like this one, but wouldn’t that be handy?
The first key point is the serving size. This one can be a serious stumbling point if you’re not careful. Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar products (two boxes of macaroni and cheese, for example) – but you have to watch out for that second line, the “Servings per Container”. If you eat the whole box of macaroni and cheese (and who hasn’t done that?), you’re actually eating two servings. That means doubling all of those numbers down the % Daily Value column (which means you’ve just had 40% of the recommended daily allowance of sodium in one [delicious] meal).
Next up, that “Calories” box. Remember the calorie count (250) is for one serving of mac and cheese. Also, almost half of those calories (110) come from fat. If you eat the whole box you’re getting 500 calories with 220 coming directly from the fat content. In general, when it comes to calories:
- 40 Calories is low
- 100 Calories is moderate
- 400 Calories or more is high
Moving on to Nutrients, it’s all about knowing which ones you want to limit and which you want to be sure to get enough of each day. On our example label the nutrients you want to limit are highlighted in yellow and the nutrients you want are highlighted in blue.
We all get plenty of fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium without even trying (we’re over-achievers that way). On the flip side, most of us struggle to get our recommended daily allowance of dietary fiber, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. Look for nutrition labels featuring big numbers in these areas balanced with small numbers in fat, cholesterol and sodium.
If the Footnote section looks familiar it’s because the same information is included on virtually all food labels. The statement “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet” is actually required. If there’s space on the label to include the rest of the details, they’ll always be the same because they’re dietary recommendations for everyone and not specific to the product you’re holding.
Most of us get the concept behind the “% Daily Value” column – throughout the day we can work our way up to 100% in each category (although that’s not recommended for the nutrients we want to limit). Anything listed at 5% of your Daily Value (DV) is low (which is good for fat, cholesterol and sodium). Anything listed at 20%DV or more is high (which is good for fiber, vitamins, calcium and iron).
On our mac and cheese box, one serving contains 12 grams of fat, three of which are saturated fat and three are trans fat. That means one serving contains 18% of our daily fat allowance and 15% of the recommended intake for saturated fat.
So why isn’t there a % Daily Value next to trans fat? FDA experts couldn’t come up with information to suggest how much trans fat is actually healthy for your diet. Trans fats have been linked to raising LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, so the FDA recommendation is to limit your intake as much as possible.
One more interesting example (before we all go devour a box of mac and cheese):
Below are the labels from two kinds of milk. One is “Reduced Fat” and the other is “Nonfat” milk. Compare the two – which has more calories and saturated fat? Which has more calcium?
Answers: One serving (1 cup) of either milk contains 30%DV of calcium, but the nonfat milk has no saturated fat and 40 fewer calories!
Some people have a real aversion to nonfat milk, but if you’re just as happy pouring it on your cereal or into your glass as you would be using reduced fat milk it’s a great way to get a good dose of calcium and limit your calories and saturated fat!