How to Read a Food Label
Here’s how to make healthier choices by quickly picking out important information from the nutrition facts panel.
Like many health-concious shoppers, it takes me a little longer in the grocery store than you might imagine. Coupons? Check. Thoroughly inspect every square inch of produce? On it. Wrangle an 11-month-old? Done. Read every nutrition facts panel and ingredient list? No problem! You see, once you become familiar with the food label, shopping for healthy fuel really isn’t as time-consumming as you might think. This article will help you decode the label in order to determine which foods should come home with you and which should stay on the grocer’s shelves.
Here’s how to read the nutrition facts panel and the food label:
Start at the top: The first place to start when you look at the nutrition facts panel is the serving size and the number of servings in the container. In general, serving sizes are standardized in order to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams. Be aware that the portion size suggested on the label may not coincide with the recommended serving size on health organization sites such as the USDA’s MyPyramid site.
Overall, as you move down the nutrition facts panel, you’ll notice that the nutrients toward the top are ones to limit (such as total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, etc.), and the nutrients towards the bottom (fiber, various vitamins) are the nutrients to focus on for better health.
Calories: The label will list the number of calories per serving (again, be sure to check out the serving size, and try measuring out the portion). In general, the following calorie ranges apply to foods:
- Low calorie foods: Fewer than 40 calories per serving
- Moderate calorie foods: 100 calories per serving
- High calorie foods: More than 400 calories per serving
Total fat: As an athlete, you need to consume some fat (really, there’s no need to be afraid of fat), but you don’t need to exist on fat alone. In general, approximately 25 percent of your calories comes from fat (the rest from carbohydrates and protein). Aim for most of your fats to come from plants, as the fat they supply is generally heart-healthy. In general, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are the best choices.
- Saturated fat: Design your diet so that less than 10 percent of your total calories comes from saturated fat. For optimal health, keep this number below 7 percent; the less saturated fat, the better!
- Trans fat: Keep this unhealthy fat as low as possible. In general, less than 2 grams per day is recommended.
- Polyunsaturated (PUFA) and monounsaturated (MUFA) fats: These heart-healthy fats are good choices and often come from vegetable oils. The majority of fats in your diet should be PUFA and MUFAs. Some food labels list the amount of MUFAs and PUFAs in terms of grams. If the food label does not list the exact grams of PUFAs and MUFAs, you can determine the total by subtracting the grams of saturated fat and trans fat from the total fat content of the food.
Sodium: While athletes lose sodium in their sweat, an excessive intake of sodium is not recommended. The updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that individuals reduce their sodium intake to less than 2300mg per day. In order to consume a diet that meets (and doesn’t exceed) this guideline, avoid most processed foods, and aim for less than 200mg per serving. Low-sodium foods contain less than 140mg per serving.
Sugar: The grams of sugar listed on the label include natural sugar and added sugars. Remember to check the ingredients to check for added sugar.
Fiber: In general, kids (2-18 years old) should aim for a fiber intake of their age (in years) plus 5 grams. Adults should aim for 25-30 grams of fiber daily or 14 grams per each 1000 calories consumed.
Footnotes and daily values:
At the bottom of the nutrition facts panel, there is often a footnote or a box that explains the daily value percentages in the product. This footnote is based on a 2000-calorie or 2500-calorie diet, so it isn’t entirely applicable to everyone. However, the daily value percentages will indicate whether the food item is rich in a certain nutrient. For example, if a product contains 70 percent of the daily value for sodium, you know that no matter how many calories you require, this product is very high in sodium.
The amounts circled above are the recommended daily intakes or daily values (DV) for each nutrient listed. DVs in the footnote are based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. The DVs for some nutrients change with calorie needs, while others (for cholesterol and sodium) remain the same for both calorie amounts.
Last but not least on the food label is the list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so be sure to pay attention to the order of ingredients. If an ingredient is toward the beginning of the list, the product contains a large amount; whereas, if the ingredient is toward the end of the list, the product contains only a small amount. For example, cereal with sugar listed as the second ingredient contains a high amount of sugar and is probably not the best choice.
The ingredient list is also helpful if you are trying to avoid certain food items or allergens. Food labels are now required to clearly identify the eight most common allergenic foods. These are the foods that account for 90 percent of food allergic reactions. The eight allergens identified on the food label include (but may not be limited to): milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.