March 30, 2016

Understanding Food Labels

General Health

I have heard many times how confusing the nutrition facts label can be. “What do I look at? How much am I supposed to get? What is important for me?” The nutrition facts label can be very complex, especially when we haven’t been told how to decipher it. By the way, the FDA is proposing to update the Nutrition Facts label in an effort to improve the health of the public, by incorporating the new nutrition recommendations to reduce the risk of chronic diseases (good news!). Until we have a date that this new label is going to be put into effect, let’s focus on the current nutrition facts label for shopping

For those of you who don’t want to read this entire blog and prefer to get straight to the point, the one thing I will tell you is this…

Look at the % Daily Value. If it says 5% or less, the food is “low” in the nutrient. If it says 20% or more, the food is high in the nutrient.  Generally speaking, we want to choose foods low (with 5% or less of the Daily Value) in saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

Now for those of you who like more detail, read on!

There are a few things I like to point out to people when I review the label with them.

  1. SERVING SIZE. The first thing to look at is the serving size. The serving size is supposed to recommend a typical amount of food consumed. The serving size influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. But, beware! We often eat more than the serving size calls for. Pay attention to the serving size, and ask yourself, “How many servings am I consuming”? For example, if the serving size is ½ cup and you eat 1 cup, you are doubling the serving and therefore must DOUBLE the calories, fat and everything else listed on the nutrition label.
  2. CALORIES. Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of the food. Most of us eat more calories than we need. Remember that the number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you actually eat! Visit to find out an appropriate calorie level for you.
  3. TOTAL FAT/SATURATED FAT/TRANS FAT. Fat is a major source of energy for the body and aids in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K and is important for proper growth and development. But ALL FATS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL. Too many saturated and trans fats can increase your risk of heart disease.

What are those ‘bad fats’?

Trans fats should be avoided, as much as possible. Trans fats are found mostly in processed foods made with partially hydrogenated oils. Even if the food label says ‘0 g trans fat’, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has no trans fat. It could have up to half a gram of trans fat per serving. So check the ingredient list for ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ – those are trans fats! However, there is more good news coming! The FDA has given food manufacturers three years to remove the partially hydrogenated oils from their products.  After that time, partially hydrogenated oils will not be allowed to be added to human food, unless otherwise approved by the FDA .

Based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, saturated fats should be kept to less than 10% of daily calories (ex. For a 2,000 calorie diet, your daily saturated fat intake should be less than 22 grams).  Saturated fats are most commonly found in high fat animal sources (such as meat, dairy and butter).

So what does all this “fat talk” mean? We should be focusing on getting our fats from healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). These unsaturated fats can help lower risk of heart disease and stroke. Unsaturated fats include plant-based oils (olive, peanut, sesame), avocados, fatty fish, nuts and seeds. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are not required to be shown on food labels, however some manufacturers opt to list these to give credibility to their healthy food product. If monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are NOT listed, simply subtract the saturated and trans fats from the total fat grams, and any remaining grams of fat come from healthy unsaturated fats.

  1. CHOLESTEROL. Cholesterol is found only in animal products. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 do not include limiting cholesterol to 300 mg per day (as previously recommended), but this change does not suggest that dietary cholesterol is no longer important to consider when building healthy eating patterns
  2. SODIUM. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend reducing daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day (or 1,500 mg for adults with hypertension). More than 75% of the sodium Americans consume come from restaurant, prepackaged, and processed foods So… it is very important to look at those labels!
  3. SUGARS. The FDA is proposing to require the addition of Added Sugars on the label. Currently the “sugars” on the label include both the “added sugars” and sugars that are naturally occurring in food. This is important as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 are encouraging Americans to “consume less than 10% of calories per day from added sugars” (ex. For a 2,000 calorie diet, this is less than 50 grams of added sugars per day – about the amount of sugar in ONE 12 oz. can of Mountain Dew!).

Hopefully this will give you a better understanding of the current food label, and some of the new Dietary Guidelines!