Have you ever wondered how to read a food label? There was once a time when you had no idea what exactly was going into your body. You knew that food had calories, but you had to guess how many. The total fat, carbohydrates, and protein were also a mystery. And if you thought that the food’s macronutrient makeup was difficult to determine, you can forget about figuring out what the ingredients were.
That all changed in 1994 when food companies were required by law to use a nutrition label on their packaging. This law was probably one of the single greatest advances we’ve made as a society towards understanding our diets.
So what can you learn from the nutrition facts food label? Just about everything you could ever want to know about your food. By the time you get done reading this, you’ll never look at a food label the same, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll think twice about some of the food products you purchase.
How to Read a Food Label
The picture shown to the left is the nutrition facts food label for a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. I am going to break it down section by section so that you can understand how to decipher your own food labels in the future.
Every numerical value on a food label is based off a certain amount of food. The serving size is this amount. For this box of Cheerios, a serving size is 3/4 cup (or 28 grams if you prefer weight). If you ever measure your food, you’ll realize that this is a very small amount of food. Most of the time, the amount of food we eat is much larger than just one serving.
Servings Per Container
This is used to determine the total amount of food in the box. There are 17 servings in this box of Cheerios, and each serving is 3/4 cup. If we multiply the two together we get (17 servings * 3/4 cup = 12 3/4 cups) or (17 servings * 28 grams = 476 grams).
The total amount of calories that are in each serving. Cheerios has 110 calories in every 3/4 cup of cereal.
% Daily Value
The FDA has set daily nutrition requirements based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Each of the percentages you see in this column is the amount of the nutrient in one serving of food that you need each day. For example, each serving of Cheerios gives you 2% of the total fat you need each day.
The total amount of fat in each serving of food. The total fat is then broken down into saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fat. Next to each one you’ll see the total grams for each serving. These subcategories of fats should all add up to the total fat.
You’ll notice that in this example they only add up to 1, but the total fat is 1.5 grams. The difference comes as a result of the rules the FDA has in place. The FDA allows food companies to round the total grams to the nearest 0.5g. In addition, amounts less than 0.5g are rounded to 0g. So just because something says 0 grams of fat, it doesn’t necessarily mean that!
The total amount of cholesterol, sodium, and potassium per serving.
The total amount of carbohydrates per serving. Carbohydrates are then broken down into subcategories. Again, the total of all the subcategories should be equal to the total carbohydrates. Dietary fiber is one of those subcategories. It is further broken down to show both the total soluble fiber and insoluble fiber.
Another subcategory is sugars, which obviously shows the amount of sugar grams per serving. The “other carbohydrate” category shows what’s left over. These are the complex carbohydrates that don’t fit into the other subcategories.
The total protein grams per serving.
Vitamins and Minerals
This section shows the percent of your daily recommended value for all the vitamins and minerals that were either added to the product, or were originally part of the food. The only vitamins and minerals that are required to be listed are vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.
Recommended Daily Allowance
This little table shows a breakdown of your total daily allowance of nutrients based on a 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diet. These are the numbers that are used to calculate the % daily values.
One of my favorite sections of a nutrition label. There’s no manipulating the facts here (well, almost no manipulating). Every ingredient that’s in the food product is listed here. The ingredients are listed in order from highest to lowest based on their weight. It’s in this section that you will find whether or not the food product contains trans fats or artificial sweeteners. Remember, a food product can show 0 grams of trans fats as long as there is less than 0.5 grams.
To find out if there really is any, look in the ingredients section. If you see partially hydrogenated oils listed there, then you know it contains trans fat. The foods you should be looking to eat should have very little in the ingredients section. For example, a can of pinto beans will read “pinto beans”, and that is it. All natural peanut butter will read “peanuts”, and that is it too. If you start to see additional ingredients, be wary.
Vitamins and Minerals
This section isn’t present on every food label. It is reserved for food companies that have fortified their products with additional vitamins and minerals. In its original form, Cheerios has very little nutritional content, as it has been refined and stripped of its nutrients. So the company adds back in (fortifies) the nutrition that was lost during the refining process.
These vitamins and minerals are added in chemical form. There is much debate on whether these nutrients are just as good as they are in their natural state. I personally believe that you should get as much of your nutrition as possible in its natural form. Whole foods also contain elements that help to assimilate these nutrients. In addition, science is always advancing, and who knows what we might discover about our food in the future.
So there you have it – your comprehensive guide for how to read a food label. The next time you go to the grocery store, look at the label of everything you’re about to put into your cart. I promise you that you are going to walk out of the store much more informed about what you’re putting into your body. And more than likely, if you’ve never read a food label before, you might even be shocked at what you see.