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Cut the Confusion When It Comes To Food Nutrition Labels

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Do you stop and read food labels when you’re at the grocery store? If so, that’s great! It’s one step in the right direction when you’re trying to make informed decisions about the food you put on the table. Whether or not you read the labels, you have probably gotten stumped by all the numbers and percentages and what it all means. Don’t fret—here’s a basic guide to cutting through the confusion that lies in the labels.

Food labels are like road maps. They give you a big picture of where you need to be, but they don’t tell you exactly how to get there. Reading the label is one thing; deciphering it is something entirely different. Cooper Clinic Registered Dietitian Elana Zimelman, RD, LD, CDE, helps you navigate food labels.

The Basics
The “Nutrition Facts” panel and the list of ingredients are where your eyes need to be. Start at the top of the panel and make your way down. First, check out the serving size. If you are trying to manage your weight, it is especially important to look at this number. It tells you how much of the product is in a “normal” serving. Keep in mind your idea of a serving may be different than what is listed and that makes a big difference.

Always read the serving size first and keep things simple by noting the items that pertain to your specific health.

  • If you are trying to lose weight, the more important things to check out are total calories, total fat and dietary fiber.

  • If you have diabetes, also look for the total carbohydrates.

  • If your blood pressure is high, pay particular attention to sodium.

  • If you have high cholesterol, read the saturated fat content to determine if the food is a fit for you.

Consult with a registered dietitian to tailor your specific needs for calories, sodium, fat, carbohydrates and fiber.

Vitamins and Minerals
Food labels are required by the FDA labeling laws. This include vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. Unfortunately, most Americans do not get enough of these in their diet.

Getting the Right Amount
The percent Daily Value (DV) listed to the right of each of the nutrients can be quite confusing. These percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Even if you don’t consume 2,000 calories per day, the “percent DV” gives you an approximate idea of how the different nutrients contribute to your diet. To simplify the process, follow the “5 percent and 20 percent rule.” This means you should shoot for 5 percent or less of the unhealthy components of the food, like fat, saturated fat and sodium. Aim for 20 percent or greater for the healthier nutrients like fiber and vitamins or minerals.

When you’re trying to figure out which foods to buy, make sure you are looking at two similar products, keeping in mind no one food is perfect. For example, both fat free milk and peanut butter can fit into a healthy diet but they each have entirely different nutrient profiles. Fat-free milk is low in fat (<5 percent DV) and high in calcium (>20 percent DV), but it also contains more carbohydrate (from natural sugar) than peanut butter. Peanut butter is lower in carbohydrate and sugar, but it contains more fat (>20 percent DV). Even though 20 percent DV or greater is not recommended for most foods, peanut butter is an exception because it is a healthy fat. It has a lot of calories, so enjoy it in small amounts.

Ingredients
The ingredient list is important because it lists exactly what’s in your food. Ingredients are listed in order of greatest amounts to least amounts, according to their weight. A good rule of thumb is the fewer the ingredients, the better, however this system does not apply to all foods. 

Marketing Labels or Boxes
The FDA sets specific rules for manufacturers when they make certain nutrient claims on the label. Here’s an easy guide to define what some of these terms mean:

  • “Healthy” = low in fat, lower in cholesterol and sodium

  • “Low fat” = no more than 3 g fat per serving

  • “Light” = 50% less fat or 1/3 fewer calories than the original version of the food

  • “Free” (as in “fat free”) = contains only trace amounts of fat

Next time you go to the grocery store, take a few moments to check out the food labels. Yes, it may take you a little longer to get through the aisles, but after a few visits it will be quicker because you already know what to buy. Invest the added time because your health is worth it!

For more information about Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, click here or call 972.560.2655.