Food labels 101: Understanding the nutrition facts panel

Use some simple guidelines and strategies for reading the information on the nutrition facts panel to make wise food choices.

Most people do not want to spend more time in the grocery store than is necessary. Therefore, trying to decipher the nutrition facts panel on a food item or even comparing items can be challenging. If you’ve ever spent more time than you wanted in the store trying to decide between two or more foods by staring unsuccessfully at the nutrition label, the following guidelines suggested by Michigan State University Extension should help you when it comes to making healthy food choices.Food labels 101

  1. Serving size – This is at the top of the nutrition facts panel. It lists the serving size and amount per serving, which means that the label is telling you how much food is considered one serving and how many servings are in the container. This may not necessarily be in line with United States Department of Agriculture serving recommendations or portion size, which is the actual amount eaten. This information is helpful to know because if you consume more than one serving (for example, a 20 ounce bottle of soda pop has 2.5 servings) you can account for that by multiplying what you consumed by the amounts in one serving.
  2. Calories – This is below the serving information. The label tells you the amount of calories per serving and also how many calories come from fat in the food. Calories are the energy that a person gets from consuming the food. Most people eat more calories than needed, yet do not get enough of the nutrients their body needs. The general guideline is that 40 calories is low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 calories is high.
  3. Nutrients to limit – The nutrients that should be limited are fat, cholesterol and sodium. Consuming an excess of these nutrients can increase the risk of developing chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Furthermore, of the total fat consumed, most should be from unsaturated fats like olive oil and limited amounts of saturated and trans fats.
  4. Nutrients to get enough of – This includes fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C and iron. Eating adequate amounts of these nutrients can help protect from developing chronic health conditions and also improve health. For example, adequate fiber intake is important for digestive health as well as to help feel full between meals.
  5. Percent Daily Value (%DV) – This value is located on the right hand side and is listed for the various nutrients on the nutrition facts panel. The %DV gives a percentage that tells you how much of a particular nutrient is in one serving of the food relative to the recommended amount based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The benefit of the %DV is that you don’t need to follow a 2,000 calorie diet to use the information and there is no math to try and figure out. Anybody can use %DV to help determine if a food is low or high in a particular nutrient. The guideline is that five percent or less is low in a nutrient and 20 percent or more is high. For example, if a nutrition facts panel says that the %DV for calcium is 20 percent and iron is four percent, then you know that the food item is high in calcium but low in iron. Note: There is no %DV for sugars, trans fat and protein.

Looking for these items on the nutrition facts panel is an easy way to use the information to make informed and healthy food choices.

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