So you’re at the supermarket looking for an easy and healthy breakfast option. As you scan the cereal aisle, trying to avoid sugary cereals, you lock eyes with the healthiest looking box of cereal ever. It’s packaged in a small perfectly designed eco-friendly box with a picture of a happy leaf…or tree…or field of leafy trees. Whatever. It looks healthy. The front of the box also proudly states that this cereal contains 87 organic whole grains, 42 grams of free-range muscle building protein and 2000% of bone-bolstering calcium. You’ve learned all this about the cereal before even picking it up off the shelf. This cereal must be perfect! So you buy it. And you continue to buy it never really knowing what you’re eating.
The packaging of food products, especially the front, is designed to make you want to buy it. To learn how the contents of the package will affect your body and to demystify any misleading nutrition marketing, you need to read and understand the often overlooked unglamorous nutrition facts label. So let’s take a look at the sections of the nutrition facts label.
1. Serving sizes & servings per container
Always start with the serving size. This is the part of the nutrition label that many of us do not fully read or we completely ignore. It tells us the size of a serving. Why is that important? The remainder of the label is calculated in reference to this serving size. For example, eating 1 Cup of your favorite 100-calorie organic granola which has a serving size of a 1/4 Cup, means you’ve consumed 300 more calories than you initially expected. You must also pay close attention to the number of servings in a container. For example, one bottle of soda, may actually contain more than one serving.
Calories are a measure of how much energy our bodies derive from food. It is important to have an idea of how many calories you need to achieve your fitness and nutrition goals. This section of the label tells you the number of calories per serving. The present version of nutrition label (designed in 2006) also states the number of calories from fats; the latest version of the label (finalized in 2016) has removed the calories from fats in this section.
Sample Label for Macaroni and Cheese . Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/labelingnutrition/ucm274593.htm
3. Macronutrients, Cholesterol, Sodium
The macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and proteins) along with cholesterol and sodium are listed immediately below the calories. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with health experts recommend that you limit the intake of saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol in order to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Later in the post we will discuss how much of these nutrients are considered “low” and “high”.
4. Micronutrients (Vitamins & Minerals) & Dietary Fiber
Vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber are nutrients that are sometimes lacking in our diets. In the United States vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron are required to declared.
The footnote explains that the percentage Daily Values (DVs) stated in the nutrition label are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. This section may also show health experts’ recommended intakes of fat, saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates and dietary fiber for 2,000 Calorie diet and 2,500 Calorie diet. These intakes do not change from product to product since they are general recommendations to all consumers. Be sure to take note of which nutrients that have upper limits (“less than”) and which ones have a lower limit (“at least”).
6. % DV
This column of values tells us the percentage of the recommended daily intake of each nutrient in one serving based on 2,000 calorie diet. FDA considers 5% or less to be “Low” and 20% or more to be high. For example, in the nutrition facts label below, one serving has a high amount of iron (45%) and a low amount of saturated fat (5%) based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
The New Nutrition Facts Label
In May 2016 the FDA announced a new nutrition facts label. The changes to the label will include additional nutrition data, reflect new scientific information and utilize updated labeling requirements. Some of the changes include:
- Larger and bold font for the calories and serving size
- More realistic serving sizes to reflect how much people actually eat
- “Added sugars” to inform consumers of amount of the sugar added during the processing or packaging of products.
You can see a more detailed list of the changes in this document.
Manufacturers with over $10 million in annual food sales have until June 2020 to comply; manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales have until Jan 2021 to comply.
Original vs. New Format of Nutrition Facts Label . Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm
Nutrition labels give you a much better idea of what you’re eating. When paired with a food product’s ingredients list, nutrition labels can clarify the misinformation that is shrouded by nutrition marketing. Now, go to your pantry and take a look at the nutrition labels on some of your favorite foods. What do the labels tell you that you never noticed before?
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