Making Sense of Food Labels

by Liz Friedrich, MPH, RD, LDN

Making Sense of Food Labels

The relationship between diet and health is complex, and our understanding of it is constantly evolving. For the consumer, though, it can be difficult to keep up with all the latest news, as best-selling books tout specific foods to eat and avoid and new studies seem to come out every week. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990 was designed to help people sort through this often-­contradictory barrage of nutrition messages. The act requires most foods to list nutrition facts on their labels and also authorizes food manufacturers to make “nutrient content claims” and “health claims” for their products. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implements the act’s provisions. Still, some confusion remains: What do all those numbers on the label really mean? What is the “percent daily value”? Can you believe the label that claims “this food may help prevent heart disease”? This article will take a closer look at some of the more commonly misunderstood features of food labels.

Nutrition 101

Before examining the label, it is important to understand the basics of good nutrition. The label will mean more to you if you know what you are looking for. Use the following guidelines to help you become a healthier eater — and a more informed label-reader:

  • Aim for variety and moderation in your food intake. Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products or ­calcium-fortified soy products, and protein sources such as meat, beans, eggs, or nuts daily. Try not to think of foods as “good” or “bad,” because most foods (with a few exceptions) do have some nutritional value, even if they are high in some undesirable nutrients.
  • Carbohydrates, protein, and fat all provide the body with calories. Most adults require 1,800 to 2,000 calories daily to maintain their weight. Some may require more or less, depending on their weight, age, health status, and fitness level.
  • Protein needs vary depending on body weight and medical status. Most people have no trouble getting enough protein.
  • Even healthy adults should limit their intake of fat (of all kinds), saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium because of these nutrients’ connection to heart disease. Those with heart disease should be extra careful about their intake of fats and sodium.
  • Everyone should limit added sugar, which has no nutritional value and can cause dental cavities and weight problems. Natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables are not considered added sugars.
  • Choose whole over refined grains when possible. See Whole Grains for a list of some alternatives.
  • Plentiful amounts of vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, and fiber are important to good health in a variety of ways and may help prevent some diseases.

The Nutrition Facts panel

The most important feature of a food label is the Nu­trition Facts panel, the well-known table of ingredients and nutrient amounts printed on most packaged foods. (See a Sample Nutrition Facts Panel.) The Nutrition Facts panel was designed to help people eat less of nutrients that are considered unhealthy, including fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. It can also be used to choose more of those nu­trients that promote good health, such as dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Protein is listed on the panel but is not usually a major focus because lack of protein is not thought to be a health problem for most adults and children over 4 years of age.

To make label reading really meaningful, focus on two or three nutrients on the Nutrition Facts panel that are important to you, recommends Robin Plotkin, RD, LD, a culinary and nutrition consultant based in Dallas, Texas. Narrowing your focus will make it easier to use the information to your advantage. For example, if you are a postmenopausal woman, you might focus on calories, fiber, and calcium. If you are a man with heart disease, you might be most concerned with calories, fat, and sodium. If you are being treated for a diet-related medical condition, a registered dietitian (RD) can help evaluate your nutrition needs and teach you to focus on the key nutrients that will be most helpful to your situation.

Serving size. When asked by consumers what is most important on the Nutrition Facts label, the overwhelming response from registered dietitians is “serving size.” Shoppers tend to ignore this critical information, but it is very important, especially for those who are watching their calorie or fat intake. You’ll see the serving size and number of servings per container listed at the top of the Nutrition Facts panel. All nutrient amounts listed below the serving size are the amounts per one serving. If you don’t focus on the serving size, you might be taking in more nutrients than you realize. This is a real concern if you are eating (or drinking) foods that are high in calories, fat, or sugar. For example, check the label on a 20-ounce bottle of cola. Although it is usually assumed to be one serving, it is really two-and-a-half servings of soda and contains 250 calories and virtually no nutrients.

Last Reviewed on November 8, 2012

Liz Friedrich is a nutrition and health promotion consultant based in North Carolina

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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