Nutrition Facts labels can help you make smart food choices, but the information can be confusing or hard to figure out. Here’s what to look for and how to interpret it.
The serving size is the recommended amount to eat at one time. This amount is listed by weight (ounces or grams, for example), by volume (cups or tablespoons), or by number of pieces (such as 10 chips or 3 cookies). Sometimes, serving sizes may be much smaller than you expect. If the serving size for your favorite cereal is a 0.25 cup and you pour 1 cup into your bowl, then you are eating four servings! You will need to multiply the Amount Per Serving on the Nutrition Facts label by four.
Calories are a unit of measurement. The number of calories in a food tells you how much energy it provides to your body. The Percent Daily Value is based on a person who needs to eat 2,000 calories every day. Older, smaller, and less active people need fewer calories. The number of calories in each serving is important if you want to maintain or lose weight.
Fat is two times higher in calories than protein or carbohydate, so you might think you should not eat it. In fact, fat is a necessary nutrient. That means your body needs a certain amount of fat to stay healthy.
However, there are several types of fats, and some are better for you. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats help lower your blood cholesterol and protect your heart. Saturated fat and trans fat can raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2 grams of trans fats per day and no more than 20 grams of saturated fat based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Sodium (salt) can cause your body to retain excess water. This can lead to high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy people eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Foods high in salt include bacon, deli meats, potato chips, soy sauce, canned goods, ketchup, and fast foods. If your doctor has told you to limit the amount of salt you eat, look for low sodium or reduced sodium varieties of these foods.
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates, or “carbs,” are your body’s main source of energy. Your body breaks down carbohydrates and uses the sugar as fuel. You may hear people talk about complex carbs and refined carbs. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down in the body. These foods usually have vitamins and minerals, and supply fiber. Oatmeal, oranges, broccoli, and brown rice are complex carbs.
Refined carbs have been processed, which removes most of the fiber and many of the vitamins and minerals in these foods. White flour, sugar, and white rice are refined carbs. Even if they don’t include sugar, they break down quickly and your body gets a quick jolt of sugar. Too much sugar in your blood raises your risk of rapid weight gain and is linked to heart disease and diabetes. The US Department of Agriculture recommends that you eat no more than 40 grams of refined or added sugar per day. Foods high in sugar include honey, processed cereals, ice cream, sodas, juices, bakery goods, and candy.
Protein is another necessary nutrient. Your body uses protein to build and repair muscles. Some plant foods supply protein. Peas, peanuts, dried beans, and seeds contain protein. They also supply some fats and complex carbohydrates. Animal products are often high in protein. They do not contain carbohydrate, but some are very high in fat. Lean sources of animal protein include skinless chicken, most fish, fat-free or or low-fat dairy products, egg whites, and beef or pork that has been trimmed of fat.
Nutrition Facts labels list ingredients by weight, in order from the greatest amount to the least. It’s important to learn the many different names for fats, sodium, and sugar in the ingredients. For example, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are other names for trans fats. Coconut oil and palm oil are high in saturated fat. Any food that lists sodium in any form (such as sodium nitrate, sodium benzoate, and monosodium glutamate) is probably high in salt. And an ingredient that ends in “-ose” is a type of sugar. Sucrose, dextrose, glucose, maltose, and high-fructose corn syrup are all highly refined sugars.
Make it a habit to read food labels and make wise choices to help you stay healthy.