Food labels. They’re something we gloss over or stare at confused.
(I have definitely done both)
I admit–I didn’t put much thought into nutrition labels until I studied nutrition.
And I felt like I saw the Matrix when I made labels for small food businesses.
So this post goes over how to read a nutrition label (the right way) so you understand what you’re putting into your body.
Why Do Nutrition Labels Matter Anyway?
If good health is the treasure, nutrition labels are your treasure map.
Sure we know the basics of healthy eating. Don’t eat too much junk food, sugar, salt…all that jazz.
The real problem is that we shop based on an idea of what’s healthy. But a lot of food products aren’t as healthy as we think.
Front-of-package nutrition labels help…kind of.
But the truth is marketing controls those front labels. And they can put whatever they want on the front.
The information isn’t wrong…and it can help people make healthier choices….
But it doesn’t always paint an objective picture.
Have you ever seen a pack of frozen vegetables that say “no cholesterol” on them?
Guess what? No vegetables have cholesterol.
But people want to buy the ones that say “no cholesterol” on the front of the package because it sounds good.
The FDA sets the standards for the back-of-package nutrition labels. And no one is allowed to change the information on those labels.
So if you want objective information (that isn’t designed with your wallet in mind)…look at that back-of-package label.
These labels are notoriously hard to read though.
Why Food Labels are Hard to Read
If reading a nutrition label feels like you’re deciphering a cryptic message…you are not alone.
I’m not sure what the FDA was thinking, but the original labels were not reader-friendly (in my humble opinion).
They have gotten better with the 2016 updates, but you need a basic understanding of nutrition to know what you’re reading.
That’s why I love this label guide from the University of Hawaii’s Human Nutrition textbook. It makes labels easy.
Let’s go through it.
Serving Size & Servings per Container: How Not to Get Fooled with Calories
Size matters…serving size that is. Which is why this is good place to start on a label.
There are 2 facts you need:
- serving size
- Servings per container
Serving size tells you how much of the food you can eat at one time to get the nutrition from the label.
For example, the serving size for this food item is ⅔ cup. If I only eat ⅔ cup, then I’m eating 230 calories, getting 8g of fat, 160mg of sodium, 37g of carbs, and 3g of protein.
Don’t fall for the most common mistake people make though – lots of food labels contain multiple servings. Our example label has 8 servings per container.
Which means if I ate all 8 servings, I’d eat 1840 calories (A huge increase from 230 calories).
That’s why you want to look at “Servings per Container”. Otherwise you might end up downing twice as many calories as you thought you were.
Now before the guilt trip starts…
I’ll be the first to admit that when I’m eating chips or gummy bears…I don’t stop and count out 18 pieces as a serving size. I will eat the whole bag. Shamelessly. And guilt-free.
As long as you don’t down a giant bag of chips or a pint of ice cream everyday, it’s fine to go over the serving size.
But knowing how to read the serving size and servings per container helps you better estimate how much you’ve eaten in a day.
And you want to know that to make sure you’re meeting your nutrient needs.
Speaking of nutrient needs, the next thing to look at is the macro and micronutrients.
Decoding the Nutrient Information: Macro and Micronutrients
It doesn’t matter if you’re on team “count your macros” or not. It’s good to know how much fat, carbs and protein (aka your macros) are in your food.
You want to use these numbers to estimate if you’re getting enough of each macronutrient per day.
For one day of eating, these are the acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDRs):
There are diets out there that tell you to eat differently. Keto–with it’s low carb, high protein/high fat diet–I’m looking at you.
Keto isn’t a bad diet. It’s balanced. BUT. It’s (super) high maintenance to do it right.
My 2 cents is that as long as you’re eating enough of each macro to be safe, you can distribute your macros anyway you want.
The University of Hawaii label guide says to limit fats though…
Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the In-Between
I feel for fats. They got a bad rep one day…
Now they’re good again. But only as long as they’re the good fats (and that definition seems to change).
So, it’s normal to feel confused about fats.
We need Fat
It’s true. Fats are important in our diet so we can digest vitamins A, D, E, and K. These are our “fat-soluble” vitamins.
We also need fat for structures in our body like cell membranes. Lipids (fats) make up a good chunk of those membranes, so if we didn’t have fat, our body couldn’t make these important structure.
The “good fat” vs “bad fat” labels are what’s confusing.
All of these terms are associated with “good fats”
- Unsaturated fats
- monounsaturated fats
- polyunsaturated fats
- essential fatty acids
Which leaves saturated fats and trans fats as “bad fats”.
Saturated fats aren’t bad by nature. We need saturated fats for proper development and regulation of our hormones. And there is research taking a closer look at whether saturated fats are really unhealthy...
But the well-established research links high amounts of saturated fats to heart disease. So, the current recommendation is to limit saturated fats to about 10% of your total daily intake ( or less).
That means if I have an 1800kcal diet, I don’t want anymore than 180kcals (or 20g) from saturated fats per day.
Another thing people struggle with is dietary cholesterol…
We’ve all heard “don’t eat too many eggs, it’s bad for your cholesterol”.
It ain’t true.
And poor eggs, they’re a great source of protein.
The American Heart Association says that there’s not sufficient research to support a link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease risk.
I get the confusion. We call dietary cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol the same thing–cholesterol.
The cholesterol in your body is mostly made by your liver. So in theory, if you’re getting more dietary cholesterol than you need…the body would just make less.
You know what has a greater impact on your cholesterol levels though?
High amounts of saturated and trans fats.
And foods high in dietary cholesterol are also often high in saturated and trans fats.
The next thing the University of Hawaii’s label guide recommends limiting is sodium…
Sodium: A Sneaky Culprit
Huge amounts of sodium hide in foods. Especially ready-made meals.
The amount of sodium I’ve seen in a single frozen meal is almost an entire day’s worth. And it blows my mind.
The American Heart Association recommends less than 2300mg per day. But it’s pretty common for people to eat more than that in a day.
So definitely check the label for sodium before you buy.
Also check for…
Added Sugars-There’s one too many
Added sugars are straight up extra sugar added to a food product. In drinks, cereals and flavored yogurts, there can be a lot of added sugar for a single portion.
Sauces like bbq sauce also have a ton of added sugar. Like sodium…it’s everywhere.
According to Harvard Health, too much sugar increases your risk for weight gain, heart diseases (even if you have a normal weight), diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and possibly dementia.
Like all things, you don’t need to completely avoid added sugar. Just check your food labels so you know how much you’re eating in a day.
Now that we’ve covered what to limit, let’s focus on what you want more of on your label.
You’ll find dietary fiber under “Carbs” on a nutrition label.
The recommended daily allowance for fiber (RDA) is:
Women (age 19-50): 25g/d
The next thing you want to get enough of is your micronutrients.
Micronutrients: The Tiny Wonders You Want More Of
Micronutrients are your vitamins and minerals. And they’re as important as macros (you just need them in smaller quantities).
Nutrition labels have to tell you how much vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium are in the food product.
Food companies can choose to list other micronutrients. They usually do this to highlight something good about their product.
For example, if their food is high in B12 and they’re marketing to vegetarians or vegans (who struggle to get B12 from their diet), the company will likely list B12 on their label.
Daily Values (DV): What These (Really) Mean
Daily values are useful…and confusing. At the same time.
Treat them like a loose guideline. Because the daily values may not represent your % daily values.
At the bottom of each label, there’s a note that says “Percent daily values are based on a 2,000 calories diet. Your daily values may be highr or lower depending on your calorie needs”.
If your intake needs are 1700 calories per day, then the % daily values on a food label (based on that 2,000 calorie diet) aren’t going to match your actual % daily value.
The % DVs might not match for other things too. The %DVs use one value, but your intake needs might be different.
And that’s because the recommended dietary allowance values are based on your age and gender–the DVs aren’t.
Let’s look at fiber. The DV is 28g. But if you’re an adult woman under 50..you’re RDA for fiber is 25g. And if you’re an adult man under 50, 38g is recommended per day.
So, %DVs can be helpful, just know they may not match what you need in a day exactly.
The Ingredient List: Solving the Mystery of Food Contents
The ingredient statement is a great place to look if you have allergies or food preferences.
Companies need to list ingredients in order of weight. So the first ingredient—the food product has more of that ingredient than any other one.
Now, there are a lot of scary sounding things on a label. And I’ve heard people say “don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce”.
But in a world where people pronounce “espresso” like “expresso” (which is wrong)…I say that’s rubbish advice.
Some ingredients look weird and chemically because they have to. That’s what they’re identified as, so they have to show up that way on the label. You’ll see this often with sub ingredients.
For example, if a product uses flour, the label needs to list what’s in the flour (and you see those ingredients in parentheses like this).
Companies might add things for stability or emulsification, and they have to list those on the ingredient statement. But, they don’t usually affect the nutrition.
The “Clean Label” Deception
There’s a big push toward “clean labels” in the food industry because that’s what people want.
Fair enough because who doesn’t want to eat something with a few healthy-sounding ingredients?
Health professionals always talk about not eating processed foods.
But! A clean label doesn’t always mean healthier.
I can hear the gasps now
Agave syrup is my favorite example for this. You see this ingredient on “clean labels” because it’s just one ingredient and it sounds more natural than sucrose (or the other sugar names).
So people gulp it up because they think it’s healthier, but they flip out when they see “high fructose corn syrup”.
And too much fructose can build up in the liver, causing a fatty liver, and increase your risk for insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease. How’s that for a healthy?
Putting It All Together
Reading a food label is a skill. But now you can decode a nutrition label like a pro and take control of your food choices.
While front-of-package labels can help, they can also be misleading marketing tricks. The back nutrition panel is what you want to pay close attention to.
Don’t overlook the importance of serving sizes; they can drastically change the calorie count.
Hidden culprits? Sodium and added sugars can creep up on you.
And just because a label looks “clean” doesn’t mean it’s healthier. Just look at agave syrup and how much fructose is in it.
Mastering the food label is about progress, not perfection. But you can navigate the maze of nutrition with confidence and understand what you’re (really) eating. You’ve got this.