Food labels on everything from cereal boxes to yogurt containers can help you get a handle on what you eat — if you understand them. “Nutrition Facts” list a product’s ingredients (and in descending order, by weight), so you can easily find out what you’re ingesting. They’re also particularly good at telling you about a product’s fat, sugar and sodium content, along with its calories.
“If you know how to navigate them, they provide some pretty helpful information but need to be considered in the context of an individual’s overall diet and daily intake,” says Laurie Mitchell, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who oversees Unum‘s corporate wellness programs.
This is the eighth installment in a new WorkWell series, Healthy Living Basics for Everyone. The sanely paced plan helps you with nutrition, exercise and lifestyle and includes a mental component that helps clarify goals and identify what might hold you back.
The labels don’t necessarily include the most relevant information on micronutrients for each product, though. “They’re standardized, and all packaged foods and beverages with more than one ingredient are required to have them, so there’s no variation in what is included,” Mitchell says.
For example, every product’s iron and calcium content is always listed — even if the product isn’t a go-to for those specific micronutrients (and micronutrients a product is stellar at providing might not be listed; manufacturers can list additional micronutrients if they choose).
Here’s a summary of Nutrition Facts basics. Keep in mind that two years ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced changes to the labels aimed at making them easier to understand and more useful. Some manufacturers have already implemented the new rules. The original deadline was July, but it moved up to 2020 for big producers and 2021 for relatively smaller producers.
1. Serving size.
Nutrition Facts stats are per serving size. The FDA’s upcoming changes will “more accurately reflect what people actually eat and drink,” the agency says. Really though, whether a serving size is big or small, all you need is the lowdown on the product to know whether eating any of it is a good idea. After that, use the serving size as a general guideline and work your portions from there.
The Nutrition Facts label tells you how much each serving provides as a daily allowance (“% Daily Value”) for each nutrient (and the not-so-nutritious; labels list trans fat, but you generally want to avoid it, as you’ll see in #3, below) based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
You can get a rough estimate of how many calories you need, so you can adjust accordingly. But it’s not imperative. You may not know how many calories you consume in a day, but you can still use the %DV as a frame of reference, the FDA advises. The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high (20% or more) or low (5% of less) in a nutrient.
“Total Fat” doesn’t matter much. Neither does “Calories from Fat.” That’s because there are different types of fat. Instead, look at the lines under “Total Fat”: You want low saturated fat and trans fat. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are okay. New updated labels will no longer have “Calories from Fat.” The FDA says it’s removing it because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.
New labels will distinguish between naturally occurring sugars (those in fruit and veggies, for example) — and added sugar (those added during the processing of foods). Specifically, the number of grams of added sugars will be listed. Even without the differentiation, it helps to know how many grams of sugar are in your food.
You don’t want more than 10% of your daily calories to come from sugar. Go much past that and it’s tough to meet your nutrient needs, according to the FDA, which notes that on average Americans get about 13% of their total calories from added sugars.
“A 12-ounce can of Coke has nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar — 39 grams,” Mitchell says. All of that is added sugar (which Coca Cola’s label makes clear). “It’s well-established that diets high in sugar (and fat), and therefore total calories, contribute to obesity,” she says. Meanwhile, shredded whole wheat cereal, has 0 grams of sugar, period.
Check out the Nutrition Facts ingredients list too. Anything ending in “ose” is an added sugar, in addition to sugar and corn syrup. Fructose and dextrose, among others, add sugar but offer little nutritional value and show up in everything from pasta sauce to crackers.
The average adult should have no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Nutrition Facts labels tell you how many milligrams each serving stuffs into you.
“Most sodium comes from processed food, so consumers need to pay attention to how much they’re taking in. A whole can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup has a total of 2,225 mg of sodium — close to the max, and it’s not a stretch to eat the entire can,” says Mitchell. “Too much sodium in the diet leads to high blood pressure.”
6. Vitamins and minerals.
Current rules require manufacturers to list four micronutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. The new rules no longer require vitamins A and C (back in the day, deficiencies in them prompted their inclusion), but they make vitamin D and potassium mandatory. The FDA says nationwide food consumption surveys show Americans don’t always get vitamin D, which helps with bone health, or potassium, which helps lower blood pressure.
New rules also require manufacturers to include the actual amount of each mandatory micronutrient (along with the Daily Value, as current rules do).
Remember, the product you’re looking at might have vitamins and minerals beyond those the FDA requires be listed. Instead of sweating the label, eat a generally well-rounded diet that includes grains, fruits and veggies of all sorts and you’ll likely get the micronutrients you need.
Journalist and yoga teacher Mitra Malek regularly creates content for wellness-focused outlets, including Yoga Journal, where she was an editor. Learn more at www.mitramalek.com.