Regular workouts and eating a nutritious and balanced diet are critical to a healthy life. When it comes to physical exercise, it may be as simple as taking a walk. But for healthier eating, it may be quite complicated, especially if you don’t understand how to decode the nutrition labels of packaged foods.
One of the best ways of selecting healthier foods is by analyzing the nutrition labels that appear mostly on processed foods. That will not only give you a sense of clarity but also help you choose the most nutritious and healthy foods. One good thing about the labels is that they are easy to read and perhaps to interpret.
If you are finding it challenging to understand the nutrition labels, read on, and learn how to interpret the information to avoid confusion.
Understanding the Nutrition Labels
Nutritional labels are useful in the nutritional analysis because they give information regarding the nutritional value of prepackaged foods. Such data includes the list of ingredients, nutrition claims, nutrient content claims, and the nutrition facts table that specifies the serving size, calories, and the percentage daily value (%DV).
The nutrition facts table gives information about all the 13 core nutrients namely, fat, trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, proteins, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin A and C, calcium, sodium, iron, and sugars. Some of the optional nutrients include vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, zinc, potassium, magnesium, folate, and many others.
As a requirement by the law, packaged foods should have nutrition facts tables. However, some foods must not necessarily have nutrition tables. Such foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, raw poultry and meat, food servings to eat immediately, raw seafood, and foods sold, processed, or prepared by the roadside, and farmers’ market.
How to Read and Interpret the Nutrition Labels
Now that you understand the information to find in the nutrition label, let’s take a look at how to decode the information. Here is a quick guide to interpreting the nutrition facts table.
1. Check the Serving Size
When going through the nutrition fact table, you should start with the serving size. You can often find it at the top of the table. The fact that it’s referred to as the “serving size” does not mean that it is the quantity one should eat. It is merely the quantity of food used to generate the nutrient values in the table.
The serving size is standardized to simplify the comparison of similar foods. And they are often shown in familiar units like cups, tablespoon, and teaspoon, followed by a metric unit like grams. For example, a food having a serving size of 1 cup (170g). In some cases, the nutrition facts table may also specify the number of servings of the packaged foods.
Besides comparing the nutrients and calories of similar packaged foods, the serving size can also help you to understand the number of nutrients you eat. You can compare the amount of food you eat with the value listed on the label to find out the number of calories you consume.
If what you consume is twice the serving size, you’re getting twice the number of calories and nutrients listed on the food packaging. When reading through the nutrition fact table, do not confuse the serving size with the number of servings.
2. Check the Number of Calories
The number of calories is a measure of energy that you can get from food. Some of the nutrients that are rich in calories include carbs, proteins, and fats. Your body needs the energy from these calorie-rich foods to perform all your daily activities, from sleeping to talking to walking.
However, you should not eat more calories than your body needs. Otherwise, you are more likely to gain body weight. If you eat calories lower than what your body needs, you may lose weight. Note that the number of servings you eat influences the number of calories you get.
3. Take Note of the Percent Daily Value (%DV)
The percent daily values are shown on the right side of the nutrition facts table. The primary function of the values is to guide you to make informed decisions when choosing the right foods. Any nutrient with a daily value of 5% or less is little while those with 15% or more are a lot.
You cannot use the percent daily values to track your daily nutrient intake. That is because not every food you eat has a nutrition facts table. Such foods include fruits, vegetables, and raw meat. In other words, the percent DV will help you determine how particular foods fit into your daily meal consumption.
Not every nutrient in the nutrition facts table has the %DV. Some of the nutrients whose percent daily values must be listed in the table include fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, carbohydrate, vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, calcium, and iron.
How to Use the Percent DV
Different foods have different percent daily value of nutrients. Keeping that in mind, you can use the values to:
- Compare different foods to help you make an informed decision
- Select food products that are rich in specific nutrients you need most, e.g. fiber, calcium, and vitamin A
- Choose food products that are low in particular nutrients you need less, e.g. sodium and saturated fats
- Evaluate and compare the nutrient content claims of packaged foods
- Create dietary trade-offs with alternative foods during the entire day
4. Check the List of Nutrients
Every food contains healthy and vital nutrients and those that are not healthy. You should eat the foods that are rich in healthy nutrients and low in unhealthy nutrients.
Nutrients to Limit
Some of the nutrients that you should limit include saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Such nutrients may increase your risks of getting some chronic disease such as high blood pressure, some cancers, and heart disease. You should keep the intake of these nutrients as low as possible to avoid health complications.
Nutrients to Eat
Foods that are rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, dietary fiber, iron, and calcium have numerous health benefits. You should get enough of such nutrients to promote healthy living. For instance, calcium can help in preventing osteoporosis (a condition that makes the bones to become brittle at old age).
Foods that are rich in dietary fiber can help in improving the bowel function. To increase the amount of soluble dietary fiber in your diet, you should eat more grains, fruits, and vegetables. With the help of the nutrition facts table, you can identify the foods that have high amounts of these healthy nutrients.
Nutrition Chart for Plain Greek Yogurt
|Plain Greek Yogurt|
|Value||% Daily Value|
|Serving size||6 Oz (170g)|
|Calories (per serving)||100|
|Vitamin A||0.1 %|
|* The % daily values are based on a 2000 calorie diet|
5. Check the Nutrient Claims
Nutrient claims refer to the statements that explain the benefits of a particular packaged food in relation to human health. The food producers may state the nutrient claims or not. In other words, the claims are optional. If listed, they must adhere to the Canadian health rules for consistency. An example is, “a good source of fiber.”
Here are some other examples of nutrient content claims
Cholesterol-Free: For a food product to claim it’s cholesterol-free, it must have a minimal amount of cholesterol (less than 2mg), trans fat, and saturated fats.
Source of Fiber: A food product claiming it’s a “source of fiber” must have at least 2g of fiber. On the other hand, foods with a “high source of fiber” contain at least 4g of fiber.
Sodium-Free: For a food to be “sodium-free” it must contain less than 5mg of sodium.
Low-Fat: “Low fat” foods contain less than 3g of fats illustrated in the nutrition facts table.
What about the Ingredients?
To know the ingredients in a food product, you should check the list of ingredients on the food packaging. They are listed based on their weight in descending order. It means that the ingredients that appear first in the list have the most weights while those that appear last have the least weights.
Going through the ingredient list can be helpful, especially if you are allergic to certain foods. It can also help you to pick the right foods and avoid those that are not good for your health. For instance, if you don’t eat foods with added sugars, you’ll prefer a plain yogurt to fruit yogurt. That’s because the fruit yogurt contains added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup that the plain yogurts don’t have.
By interpreting the nutrition label of a food product correctly, you can always evaluate its applicability to your meal plan. Whether you are avoiding some foods due to health concerns or you’re on weight loss diet, ActivEats can help you find the right foods for your diet. Our weight loss meal delivery is affordable and tailored to reach you anywhere.