Interactive Nutrition Facts Label
December 1, 2015 - Author: Ellen Darnall
The nutrition facts label is usually located on the back or side of packaged food items and supplies a nutrition breakdown per one serving of the food, not necessarily the entire container. It acts as a quick reference to help consumers make informed food choices. Many people know the nutrition facts label exists, but most have never learned how to properly use or read it. The following six steps will help you learn how to read and use the nutrition facts label.
Step 1. Look at the serving size
Start at the very top of the label with the serving size. Believe it or not, the serving size could be considered the most important part of the food label. You will notice that the serving size is different for every food you eat. It could be 1 cup, three crackers, or ½ cup etc. This particular food has a serving size of 1 cup (22g). The food label shows the amount of calories, vitamins, minerals, fats ect. per one serving (one cup for this food).
*Click on the “Servings Per Container” on the nutrition facts label to learn more.
Step 2. Determine how much of the food you ate
If you ate more than one serving, you will need to do some mental math to make the nutrition facts label accurately reflect what you ate. Let’s say you ate the whole container (2 cups or 2 servings), you now have to double all of the numbers you see on the nutrition facts panel. This will then reflect the amount of food you actually ate. For example, the calories will increase from 80 to 160 because you ate two servings instead of one.
Step 3. Check the saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium
Cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium are nutrients that typically should be limited in your diet. Consuming too much sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat has been linked to increased chances of developing high blood pressure and heart complications. These nutrients are listed in grams and milligrams. When you are grocery shopping, compare the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol in packaged foods. You may be surprised that your favorite name brand food has more sodium than the store brand, or perhaps the opposite is true. Protect your heart and select the food with the lower amount of sodium.
*Click on “Saturated Fat,” “Cholesterol,” or “Sodium” on the nutrition facts label to learn more about each of these nutrients.
Step 4. Notice the amount of fiber, sugar, and added sugar
Most Americans get too little fiber and too much sugar. Fiber can be found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. If the product you are looking at has little to no fiber, chances are that food does not contain any whole grains, fruits or vegetables. Check the percent daily value column (%DV) to see how the fiber in the product compares to the total daily value. A daily value of 20% or higher is considered a good sources of that nutrient. If the % daily value is 5% or less it is considered to be low in that nutrient. This same principal applies to all of the nutrients on the nutrition facts panel, excluding fat.
*Click “%DV” on the nutrition facts label to learn more about the daily values.
While looking at the grams of sugar take into consideration that some foods have natural sugars (naturally occurring in nature) and others have added sugars (extra sugar that had been added during manufacturing to make the product taste better). Natural sources of sugar include, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The “sugar” listed on the label includes both added sugars and naturally occurring sugars.
*Click on “Sugar and Added Sugar” on the nutrition facts label to learn more.
*This food label does have added sugars listed and most labels you find will not. You should expect to see added sugars appear on food labels within the next couple of years, the USDA is currently addressing this addition to the food label. In the meantime, you can identify added sugars in the ingredients list. Read more about added sugars and what ingredients to look out for.
Step 5. Check the amount of protein, vitamins and minerals
Most Americans get more than the recommended amount of protein daily. Along with meat products, protein can be found in smaller amounts in dairy products, whole grains, vegetables, beans, nuts, and legumes.
*Click “protein” on the nutrition facts label to learn more about why protein is important for health.
Americans typically should eat more of the vitamins and minerals listed, as they are vital to overall health and body function. Foods with a variety of vitamins and minerals will help provide a more well-rounded diet. If a food you are considering buying does not have any vitamins or minerals present it may contain empty calories. Empty calorie foods supply energy (in the form of calories from fats and sugars) but little to know vitamin or mineral content. Empty calories should be avoided if possible. Read more about empty calories.
*Click on any of the vitamins and minerals on the nutrition facts label to learn more about each of these nutrients.
Step 6. Understand what you are eating by using the ingredients list
The ingredients list is also an extremely important part of the food label, as it tells you exactly what you are eating. Ingredients are listed in order of weight. The heaviest ingredient will be listed first, the second heaviest, second etc. By looking at the first ingredient in the list you can determine what the product is primarily made of. If the first ingredient listed is sugar, you are eating mostly sugar. Sometimes there might be something you do not recognize on the label: fillers, binders, colors, flavor enhancers, vitamins, and minerals are normally listed by their chemical name. If you are curious about an ingredient in a food item, contact the manufacturer of the product (normally listed on the package) or look up the ingredient using this resource: USDA’s overview of food ingredients, additives and colors.
Common allergens are either listed separately at the bottom of the ingredients list, or written in bold font and included within ingredients list. To avoid an allergic reaction make sure you check the ingredients list and common allergy lists.
*Click “Ingredients” on the nutrition facts label to learn more.
Michigan State University Extension offers nutrition education classes for people of all ages including specific programs for youth, adults, parents, and seniors. More information can be found at http://msue.anr.msu.edu/topic/info/nutrition.