Much like reading Shakespeare in middle school, food labels can be a bit of a mystery to the uninitiated. Between the numbers, absurd serving sizes and ingredients you can't pronounce, one glance at a food label is sometimes enough to make you reconsider this whole "eating healthy" thing. Much like finally understanding what the heck was going on in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," though, you too can learn how to read a food label.
While food labels have gone through various iterations of improvements, many people still find the structure and information contained to be confusing at best, pulling-out-your-hair frustrating at worst. And if you see a food label and want to scream, you're not alone: According to Politico, a lead nutritionist at the Food and Drug Administration once said she would "need to sit down with every American family for at least 15 minutes to explain the label." I doubt our tax dollars are going to fund that kind of goodwill mission, so it's up to us to unravel the mystery behind food labels before we unravel our tasty foods.
According to SparkPeople registered dietitian Becky Hand, serving size, percent daily value and sugars are the items that most often trip people up, but depending on your own diet, that one little label could leave you throwing up your hands in defeat. For example, did you know there are more than 60 different names for sugar? Sucrose, barley malt, dextrose, maltose, rice syrup—each one means you're adding some kind of sugar to your diet. And that's just one mystery!
To unravel the complexity of the food label, look no further. This guided tour may be the most important tour you do all week. School is now in session!
- Serving Size: The amount people typically eat at one time. This is shown as a common household measurement—cup, tablespoon, slice—and in grams. Compare this to the amount you actually eat, not just what the label reads (i.e. if the serving size is one cup and you eat two cups, you're getting twice the calories, fat, carbs, protein and other nutrients listed).
- Servings Per Container: The number of servings in the package. It is common for a package to contain more than one serving, so you will sometimes have to do math and increase the values if you want to know the information for the whole package. Keep in mind that packaging often affects the amount of food you eat (i.e. a 12-ounce can of soda and a 20-ounce bottle will both be listed as one serving). Foods that are often consumed in one sitting will have "dual column" labels, offering a side-by-side comparison that will display nutrition information for an individual serving as well as the entire container.
- Calories: The measure of how much energy is supplied from a serving of the food or beverage from the protein, carbohydrate and fat.
- Calories From Fat: These are not added calories, but rather fat's that contribute to the total. While carbohydrates and proteins provide four calories per gram, fats provide nine.
- Percent Daily Values (%DV): A tool to help you evaluate how the food fits into your daily meal plan by showing how much of a nutrient is in one serving of the food or beverage. The percentage is based on food intake for the entire day, not just a meal or snack. It is an average level for a person eating 2,000 calories daily. You may need more or less than 2,000 calories daily and you may need more or less than 100 percent DV for some of the nutrients.
- Fat and Cholesterol: Manufacturers list total fat, saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol in both an amount (gram or milligram) and as a percent Daily Value. Eating less saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol may help to reduce your risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and kidney disease.
- Daily recommendations:
- Total Fat: Less than 65 grams daily
- Saturated Fat: Less than 20 grams daily
- Cholesterol: Less than 300 milligrams daily
- Daily recommendations:
- Sodium: A mineral and one of the chemical elements found in salt, sodium is a nutrient that most people should focus on getting less of. While the recommended daily intake of sodium is less than 2,400 milligrams (about a teaspoon), most Americans eat about 3,400. Aim for around a 5-10% of your %DV.
- Carbohydrate: A macronutrient that provides calories for the body, each carbohydrate provides four calories. There are three types of carbohydrate: sugars, starches and fiber. Eating breads, cereals, and pasta all made with whole grains, brown rice, fruits, vegetables (starchy and non-starchy), milk and yogurt can help assure that your carb containing foods are also nutrient-packed.
- Sugars: The smallest and simplest type of carbohydrate, eating too much "added sugar" makes it difficult to meet nutrient needs and can add unwanted calories. The goal is to consume no more than 10% of your total daily calories from added sugar. On a 2,000-calorie eating plan that would be no more than 50 grams of added sugar daily.
- Dietary Fiber: Sometimes referred to as "roughage," fiber is a nutrient found in plant foods that may help reduce risk for certain diseases and maintain good health. This is a nutrient that most people need to consume more of, so aim for at least 25 grams daily.
- Protein: A macronutrient that provides four calories per gram, protein is important for growth and development. While a Percent Daily Value is not required on the label for protein, the gram amount will always be listed. The FDA recommends 50 grams a day based on a 2,000-calorie diet, but use your SparkPeople nutrition tracker to guide your personal needs. To meet your daily protein needs include a variety of plant and/or animal sources, including lean meats, poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, beans and peas, peanut and nut butters, nuts and seeds, and soy products.
- Vitamins and Minerals: These nutrients help fuel many vital functions in the human body, yet many do not get the recommended levels of some important vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron (in some), potassium and vitamin D. Aim to choose foods with higher Percent Daily Value of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.
- Ingredient List: Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. This list shows each ingredient in a food by its common or usual name and the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. This means that the ingredient adding the greatest amount to the product’s weight is listed first and the ingredient with the least weight is listed last.
- Food Allergy Labeling: The food allergy label identifies the 8 major foods or food groups of food allergies. They are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.