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How to Read Nutrition Labels

by
Feb 12th, 2021

Nutrition plays a huge role in our overall health. What we eat and drink directly impacts how well our bodies function, and too much or too little of anything doesn’t always do us much good. 

Although dieting fads come and go like the wind, the only constant among all the noise is that, for the most part, the food doesn’t change all that much. Diets can tell you what to eat and what to avoid, but it all comes down to the type of food you eat and the amount of nutrition it carries. 

That’s where nutrition labels come in. It may seem like nutrition labels have been a staple of the food industry for years, but the nutrition labels we know today have only been around for about 30 years. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was passed into law in 1990 and required all packaged foods to display a label with accurate nutrition facts. This not only allowed the consumers to find out exactly what was going into their bodies, but it also held the companies themselves accountable for what they put into the food. 

Since the NLEA was passed over 30 years ago, the nutrition label has evolved and updated to reflect the growing research on health and nutrition in the United States. The most recent update to the nutrition label was in January of 2020 and included more accurate serving sizes, a focus on types of fat rather than calories from fat, amount of added sugars and a more accurate description of the daily value.

Now, having a brand-new nutrition label is great and certainly helpful for understanding how food fits into our daily lives. However, it’s no use examining out the label if we don’t understand what it all means. What’s the difference between sugars and added sugars? What about trans fats and saturated fats? And what even is a carbohydrate, anyway?

Well, here’s a handy guide on how to decode this new nutrition label and what each line of information means for you and your body!

How to read a nutrition label

We’ll start from the top.

Servings per container & serving size

Contrary to what people may believe, the serving size displayed on the label is not necessarily the recommended serving size. The serving size is based on the amount of the food or drink typically consumed in one sitting, which is different for everybody. For example, the serving size displayed on ice-cream containers went from ½ cup to ⅔ cup, as that’s been found to be a more accurate representation of what the average person eats in one sitting. 

The servings per container help give you a visual representation of how many servings the typical person is getting out of the container, so use this as a guide to see how your own serving sizes might match up to the serving sizes depicted on the label.

Calories

The largest number on the label is the amount of calories in each serving of the food or drink. Your body uses calories for energy so that you can continue to function properly, but we also need to replace those calories through our food.

Calories don’t always come from fats, but they come from every source of nutrition you put into your body. Calories come from fats, carbohydrates, sugars, proteins and everything else we ingest.

% daily value

This is pretty self-explanatory, but the percentage displayed next to each category states how much that serving contributes to your daily nutrient requirement, based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet. 

For example, if the sodium category has a 30% next to it, then one serving of your food is going to give you nearly a third of your daily dose of sodium in one sitting. Or if your food only has 6% of your daily potassium intake, then you need to make sure that you eat other foods to get more of that nutrient. 

These percentages will help you figure out how the serving of food contributes to your daily diet, especially when it comes to what nutrients you need more (or less) of.

Total fat, saturated fat and trans fat

Fat comes in many forms, which is why you can find two subcategories of fat under the total fat category. Saturated fats usually include animal fats, condiments, sweets, desserts, pizza and dairy products, as well as many other sweet foods. Trans fats are a result of food processing and can be found in many oils, greases, baked goods and creamers, to name a few. Trans fats are generally regarded as the most unhealthy of all the fats, so having this category in the nutrition label is important to make sure you don’t get too much.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is what your body uses to build cells and create the vitamins and hormones it needs. However, all the cholesterol we need is already being produced in our livers! That means that any additional cholesterol that comes from our food is already more than we need. If too much cholesterol builds up in the blood vessels, then we run the risk of heart disease and strokes.

Sodium

Most of us get WAY more sodium than we need, so it’s important to keep the amount of sodium we consume pretty low. Sodium helps our bodies retain water, keeps our muscles working properly and makes our nervous system function well. A lot of the sodium in our food comes from preserved foods, baked goods, savory foods and snacks, meaning that it’s pretty much everywhere. 

Carbohydrates 

You may have heard from dieting fads that carbs are a big no-no, but carbs actually play a fairly significant role in our bodily functions. Carbs give us the energy we need to function, most commonly referred-to as calories. Our bodies take the carbs and convert it into glucose which gives our cells, our blood and our organs the energy they need to perform their duties properly. If there’s too much glucose in our bodies, it gets stored away for later use in our muscles and liver. 

Fiber and sugars are two important subcategories of carbohydrates that are displayed on the nutrition label. Most of us get too much sugar and not enough fiber, which often leads to a higher risk of heart disease. 

An important distinction to note here is that the nutrition label displays both total sugars and added sugars, which give us an idea of how much sugar is naturally occurring in the food and how much was added in during processing. 

Protein

Protein is vital for keeping our bodies together. Proteins repair cells and tissue, they help our skin, hair and nails grow, and they keep every process in our body running smoothly from our eyesight to hormones to our immunity against disease. 

Most of us don’t get nearly enough protein in our daily intake, but that can be easily fixed! Protein can be found in seafood, dairy products, nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetables and meat. 

Vitamins and minerals

The last section of the nutrition label will contain the various vitamins and minerals found in each food. Every vitamin and mineral performs a different function in our body, and up to 14 of each can be listed on the nutrition label. It’s a lot, certainly, but our bodies need to have an adequate amount of each to stay functioning well, so it’s important to make sure we are getting enough. It’s safe to say that most of us don’t reach our daily target of vitamins and minerals unless we try really hard, so keep an eye out for foods that are high in these nutrients. 

Although everyone is different and requires a slightly different amount of nutrients to stay healthy, the nutrition label is a great way to track what you’re putting into your body. If you’re working out often and need more protein to maintain that growth, then the nutrition label can help you reach those goals. If you’re looking to cut down on added sugars or sodium, then you’ll have a much easier time using the nutrition label as a guide. Whatever your body needs to function to the best of its ability, the nutrition label is one tool that is incredibly helpful in getting the most out of your foods and drinks. 

Good luck!

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Featured photo courtesy Colleen Ford

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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