When you’re choosing what to eat and you want to pick foods that are good for you, you may turn to the nutrition facts label. But there’s a lot of information packed into that little black-and-white box, and sometimes it can be confusing or misleading to sort out the servings, calories and nutrients.
We connected with Noel Ugarte, a registered dietitian with Banner Health, to learn more about how to read these labels and to best pull out the information you need. Here’s what to know about some key facts you’ll find on nutrition labels.
1. Serving sizes
The amount of nutrients contained in a food or beverage is based on the serving size. Serving sizes are listed in large, bold type on the nutrition label so you can quickly identify what’s considered a serving for a food item. Serving sizes reflect the portion size people typically eat. So, for example, a single serving of ice cream is 2/3 cup. (It used to be 1/2 cup, but who eats a 1/2 cup of ice cream?)
Foods that are usually consumed in one sitting, like a 20-ounce soda or a 15-ounce can of soup, are sometimes labeled as one serving. But in other cases, the manufacturer puts two nutrition labels on the product—one for the whole package and one for a serving. “It’s important to always check what the stated serving size is in relation to how many servings are in the package,” Ugarte said. The label also includes the number of servings, so you can see how many servings are included in the entire package.
Underneath the serving size, calories are listed in large, bold type so you can more easily see how many are in a serving of a food item.
2. Vitamins and minerals
Vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium are included on the nutrition label since people are often deficient in these nutrients. And the nutrition label includes the amount of the nutrient per serving in milligrams or micrograms as well as the percent of the daily value. In the past, only the percent of daily value was listed.
Vitamins and minerals that people aren’t usually deficient in, such as vitamins A and C, aren’t included on the label.
3. Percent of daily value
The label’s footnote explains what “percent of daily value” means so you can better understand how to use the nutrition information to make decisions about your daily diet. Ugarte said many people get confused by the percentage of the daily value. She points out that it’s based on a 2,000-calorie diet for healthy people, so it’s only a good tool if you are following a 2,000-calorie diet and you don’t have any health complications.
You may be tracking nutrient intake for a specific medical condition or nutritional goal, such as carbohydrates for diabetes or sodium for high blood pressure or kidney or heart disease. In those cases, you’ll want to look at the exact amount of the nutrient rather than the percent of the daily value.
4. Added sugars
Added sugars are listed separately from total sugars on the label so that you can track them easily. Ideally, you want to keep added sugars to under 10% of your total calories. Otherwise, it’s challenging to meet your nutrient needs without overeating, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugar to 36 grams per day, or 9 teaspoons, for adult males, and 25 grams per day, or 6 teaspoons, for adult females. For an individualized recommendation, you can calculate the recommended daily limit for grams of added sugar by taking 10% of your daily calories and dividing by 4.
Ugarte said that it can be confusing to know what line on the nutrition facts label to look at to understand carbohydrates and sugar. Tracking these nutrients carefully is especially important for people who have diabetes.
If you are counting carbohydrates, you want to look at the bolded line that states “total carbohydrate” and not just the added sugar, since carbohydrates get broken down into sugar in your body.
“The total carbohydrate amount accounts for the added sugar. For example, if the total carbohydrate is 37 grams and added sugar is 12 grams, this means that 12 out of the 37 grams is sugar,” Ugarte said.
Fats are broken down into total fat, saturated fat and trans fats. “If you are concerned about your fat intake, look at the saturated fat and trans fat lines,” Ugarte said. You want to read food labels and subtract the saturated fat and trans fat from the total fat.
For example, if the total fat is 8 grams and there is only 1 gram of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat, then 7 out of 8 grams are heart-healthy, unsaturated fats. “Unsaturated fats are not legally required to be on labels, although some companies may choose to include them,” Ugarte said.
Trans fats were often used in packaged foods and processed foods like baked goods, chips, fried snacks and some fast foods to keep those foods from going bad at room temperature. But as of June 2018, the FDA no longer considers trans fats to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
Today, most foods list 0 grams of trans fat on their labels. “Most people don’t know that a product can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat and legally still state ‘0g trans-fat’ on the label,” Ugarte said. So, if you are concerned about consuming any amount of trans fats, look at the ingredient list on the label for any “partially hydrogenated” oils. That’s a sign that the product could contain a small amount of trans fats.
The bottom line
Understanding what fuels your body is among the most important steps you can take toward health, and reading food labels so you know what’s in the food you eat can help you choose a healthy diet. If you would like to connect with a health care professional who can work with you to design an eating plan centered around your goals, reach out to Banner Health.