Food labels tell the story behind food. While they do not suggest what foods to eat, they do act as a guide to determine what foods may be best to choose to fulfill a nutritious diet. The utilization of food labels allows you to compare one food to another and choose a "personal best" food to balance nutrients in the body. Though their use holds valuable information, they are essentially invaluable if you do not understand how to read them. But with this guide, choosing foods for best health will be much simpler and effortless!
How to Read Food Labels
There are a wide variety of components on a food label that deserve some attention, including nutrition facts labels, ingredient lists, label definitions, and expiration dates. Below breaks down each and offers insight to best interpret the information:
Nutrition Facts Label
Despite the changes to the newest nutrition facts label, the common core principles include:
The serving size should always be checked first, as all the information indicated on the label is based on this number. It is extremely important to remember several food products contain more than one serving. You should also compare portion sizes (the amount you actually eat) to the serving size listed.
The indicated calorie quantity indicates how many calories are in one serving. If there are two servings indicated in a bag of chips and there are 120 calories per serving, the whole bag would equal 240 calories total.
Nutrition facts labels include the three core macronutrients, comprising carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Carbohydrate is broken down into dietary fiber, total sugars and added sugars, with added sugars discouraged while high fiber is encouraged. Fat may be broken down into saturated and trans fats, especially in snack foods and desserts. Cholesterol content is also indicated.
Percent Daily Values
Acting as nutrient references, percent Daily Values (% Daily Values or % DV) helps you visualize how a food fits into your overall daily diet (based on 2,000 calories) and is further highlighted below under "label definitions." Percent Daily Values are provided for all macronutrients and nutrients included on the nutrition facts label. If a food item indicates 10 percent DV of sodium, it is providing 10 percent of the total sodium a person consuming 2,000 calories a day should eat.
*You should be aiming for low intakes (less than 5 percent) of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium and high intakes (20 percent or greater) of fiber, vitamins, and minerals (potassium, vitamin D, calcium, and iron) to reduce overall disease risk and optimize health.
When reading an ingredient list, the largest amount of the ingredients will be listed first with the smallest amount towards the bottom. Though general, most health experts will recommend the rule of five, meaning choose food products with less than five ingredients. Additionally, if the word seems unfamiliar, try to stray away from or consume less of that product. Following these simple rules can further promote less processed and more wholesome foods within the diet. The ingredient list is also valuable in identifying ingredients you may be sensitive, allergic, or intolerant to, including shellfish, sugar substitutes, and wheat.
Label definitions are mostly concise statements that offer quick insight to a product right at a glance. Common definitions include:
Low in: Frequent intake of the food (following a serving size) will not exceed recommended amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, calories, etc. For instance, "low in fat" indicates one serving mostly contains no more than three grams of fat.
Reduced, Less, or Fewer: The food contains no more than 25 percent of fat, calories, or sodium than a comparison food. "Reduced" commonly means that food has been nutritionally altered compared to the usual product.
Calorie-Free: Contains less than 5 calories per serving.
Sugar or Fat-Free: Contains less than a ½ gram of sugar or fat.
Good Source of: One serving of the food contains 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value of a specific mineral or nutrient.
High Source of: One source of the food contains at least 20 percent of the Daily Value. For example, a "high source of fiber" indicates at least 20 percent from fiber.
The following dating labels help purchasers reduce their risk of food poisoning while prompting best food quality, including "sell by," "best if used by," and "use by:"
Sell by: Tells the store when the product should be sold by. Purchasers utilizing this date should buy the food prior and use or freeze the product directly following its purchase.
Examples: dairy products and cold meats
Use by: According to the manufacturer, the product has reached its peak following this date and may still be safe to eat after the date has passed.
Examples: breads, cereals, and dressings
Best if Used by: This date is not suggestive of food safety, but is recommended to use for best flavor and texture.