Understanding the Food LabelApr 21, 2023
Katie Breazeale, MS, RD, LD
The food label is simple, and complex, all rolled into one. It is simple to understand I get this many calories or fat or carbs in this food. However, serving sizes can be tricky on the label, understanding how these numbers relate to you or a medical condition can be tricky, and what’s with the percentage per daily values.
Looking at these two labels the old label is on the left and the newer nutrition label is on the right.
Let’s start with the serving size. It is bigger and bolder and easier to read. One thing to keep in mind with the serving size is that it is based on what the average person consumes. In fact, when the food label was re-evaluated some serving sizes increased because of consumption amounts.
The next change is added sugars. The old nutrition label never had added sugars. Added sugars are what they sound like. They are sugars added to the product. Added sugars can even be honey. I like to use honey nut Cheerios as an example. Cheerio is the product and a grain so it will have carbs breaking down into sugar, but the honey is added to the product.
The next difference it at the bottom of the food label. The micronutrients that are displayed have changed. Iron and calcium remain, but now there’s vitamin D and potassium. Vitamins A and C had been included in previous labels when deficiencies of these nutrients were more common. They are rare today, so have been replaced with vitamin D and potassium, which can run low in the diets of some Americans.
Understanding the Food Label:
Serving Size is based on the amount of food that is customarily eaten at one time and is not a recommendation of how much to eat or drink. The nutrition information listed on the Nutrition Facts label is usually based on one serving of the food; however, some containers may also have information displayed per package.
Serving size is shown as a common household measure that is appropriate to the food (such as cup, tablespoon, piece, slice, or jar), followed by the metric amount in grams (g).
The Fat section of the label. Ideally we want to look for products that have a lower saturated fat concentration versus looking at the total fat number. Total fat will have everything, the good and the bad.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in animal products. Too much can lead to heart conditions.
Sodium is an essential electrolyte, but too much can lead to heart conditions. The recommended amount per day is 2300 mg.
Total Carbohydrates is the amount of all three types of carbs found in the product; fiber, sugar, and starch.
Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate made up of many sugar molecules linked together in such a way that it cannot be easily digested in the small intestine.
Total sugars include sugars that are naturally present in food and added sugars, which include sugars that are added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. Sugars are the smallest type of carbohydrate and are easily digested and absorbed by the body. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10% of total calories per day.
Did you know the ingredient with the biggest amount in the food product will goes first? The ingredient list is arranged from largest quantity to smallest.
Other Names for added sugar:
High-fructose corn syrup
Malt syrup (also a gluten product)
Partially hydrogenated oils
Palm Kernel Oil
The list may contain unfamiliar terms alongside the common ingredient names.
Preservatives or colors (e.g., sodium bisulfite, caramel color)
Thickeners or emulsifiers (e.g., guar gum, carrageenan)
Scientific names of vitamins and minerals (e.g., ascorbic acid, alpha tocopherol)
The food label can be a challenge to read when you’re just starting out. Try looking at different labels in your home to get better acquainted with the process instead of being the person standing on aisle 12 for 30 minutes.
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