Understanding Food Labels
We’re all familiar with food labels. But what is the significance of the data on them? And how can we use it to inform our choices? Read on to find out.
Most people who are health-conscious have a recognizable routine in the grocery store. They spot a new product, get curious, and grab it off the shelf. And then immediately turn it over and start looking at the nutritional label. Because, yes, it may look appealing, and might even make some health claims on the front, but the real nitty gritty is on that back label.
For a lot of people, it’s a quick glance at the calorie information, and a decision is made. But when you put the rest of the data on the label in context, and understand how you can utilize it, nutrition labels become more than just a way to check calories, which is why we’re now breaking down each section of the nutrition label for you.
What Does Servings Mean?
Ah, servings. So often overlooked, with font so tiny, obscured by the domineering caloric content. But servings are key to all the other information on the label, so don’t ignore it.
The FDA notes that serving sizes are not recommendations, despite what most people think. Serving sizes are set as amounts that people typically eat, not the amount any governing body or company thinks you should eat. Servings can also often be misleading. What you might consider a serving, even if perfectly logical, may not be the measured serving size on the label. For example, you may be looking at a nutrition label for a bottle of soda. On the label you read the amount of calories and sugar, and decide to drink it. While it may be perfectly reasonable to assume that the entire bottle is one serving of soda, you might be surprised to find that the serving size is 4 oz, or half the bottle. So the calories and sugar you consumed is really double what you intended. This happens frequently. A serving size might be half a pastry, half a drink, one and ⅓ of a cookie, or other amounts that are not obvious. That’s why paying attention to the serving size is the crucial first step in understanding nutrition labels.
Servings are frequently measured in cups and tablespoons, but often have the metric weight as well. This is a far more accurate measurement and can be helpful to be aware of when you’re paying attention to your serving sizes. Investing in a food scale is an inexpensive way to get a really good idea of how much you’d typically consume compared to a single serving, and to really visualize how much these serving sizes are. It’s hard to picture 17g of nuts, but simple to measure. Even if you don’t use a food scale long term, it’s a great tool to acquaint yourself with food measurement.
Calories? What’s that?
Otherwise known as the reason most people check food labels.
It’s important to note that calories and serving sizes are connected. As we mentioned prior, a serving size is determined, and the other nutritional information is relative to that serving. So the calories listed may not be accurate for how much you intend to eat.
Being conscious of this allows you to do the necessary calculations to make your individual food choices, based on the information available to you. And of course, calories are relative to your unique fitness or weight loss goals, so what works for some may not for others.
The most important thing to note from the calorie section of the label is the relativity, and that calories are not the whole picture. Although, for some, the number of calories in a food item is the only thing of importance, many nutritional experts and metabolic coaches would argue that not all calories are created equally. Processed foods, sugars, and fats might, in certain amounts, have less calories than whole foods high in protein or rich in healthy fats, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the better choice for your individual needs. Low calories isn’t always best, which is why we have the rest of the nutritional information to give us context.
Let’s Talk About Nutrients
In the nutrients section, you find information about key nutrients that impact your health, either positively or negatively. In general, health experts recommend that you actively incorporate fiber, potassium, vitamin D, calcium, and iron into your diet, while reducing the amount of saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars. Making sure you’re consuming proper amounts of micronutrients is vital to your health, and this section of the food label can help you to complete your diet with the proper nutrients. Alternatively, assuring that you don’t consume too much trans and saturated fat, sodium, or sugar, can help prevent many serious health concerns, like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Paying attention to the nutrient content of foods is critical. We measure nutrients in grams and milligrams, as well as displayed in percentages. Making your assessments based on the metric measurements will ensure you get a more well-rounded perspective on the amount of nutrients, as the percentages listed are relative to the amount of calories consumed per day. Which brings us to…
Why Are Daily Value Percentages Useful?
Daily value percentages are intended to make it very easy for a person to decide if certain foods have high or low contents of certain nutrients, by offering what percentage of their daily amount of that nutrient it contains. While this might help give you a very rough idea, these percentages are based on the well-known 2,000 calorie diet. The 2,000 calorie diet is noted for being the basis for most regulated food information we are provided. Interestingly, this calorie amount isn’t based on science, but on survey information from the 1990s. All of which to say, these percentages are relative. Each person is consuming a different amount of calories per day, so these percentages are not accurate for everyone.
The FDA considers nutrients under 5% daily value low, and over 20% high. Depending on your individual caloric and nutritional needs, these may not be applicable to you. Despite this, the daily value percentages do offer a bit of guidance when it comes to estimating your needs for the day and allows you to make trade-offs. For example, you can indulge in something higher in sodium for lunch, and then choose a low-sodium dinner to keep balanced.
Food labels are relative and not a benchmark for everyone’s needs, but with the proper information, you can use them to your advantage to make the right food choices for your day.
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