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Nutrition Facts Label Reading 101

By Grace Burton, MS, RD, LDN  

 

Due to the increasing prevalence of obesity and chronic disease in our society, many people are trying to make healthier choices with their food and beverage intake. Depending on personal health needs and goals, people monitor different nutrients of concern such as sodium, fat, fiber, and sugar. Conveniently, these nutrients are all listed on the Nutrition Facts label found on food and drink packages; however, patients frequently ask me how to read the label or how to determine which nutrients they need to pay more attention to on the label. If you’re wondering the same thing, this post is for you! First, let’s review what the Nutrition Facts label looks like. Keep in mind that it is in the process of changing to a more updated look with slightly different information. You may still see the two different labels on products today, but by 2020, most products should have switched to the new label.

Looking at the new label, let’s start at the top.

Serving Size

  • This information will now be in bold! Look at this along with how many servings are in the package. If you eat two servings, remember you are getting double the calories, fat, sodium, and other nutrients in that item.

Calories

  • While you don’t necessarily need to count calories, it is a good idea to be aware of calorie content of foods to help with weight control.

% Daily Values

  • These percentages will help you to know if the food item is high or low in a particular nutrient.
    • 20% or more = high amount of the nutrient — Choose foods that are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
    • 5% or less = low amount of the nutrient — Choose foods that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars.

Total Fat

  • It’s important to remember that not all fat is bad!
    • When eating fat, we want to choose more of the unsaturated fats, listed as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats on the label, although they may not always be listed.
    • We want to limit saturated fat and avoid trans fat to help decrease risk for heart disease. Double check the ingredient list for “partially hydrogenated oil” – if you see this, it means trans fat is in the food even if the label says it contains 0 grams (if something has less than 0.5g of trans fat, packaging labels can say it contains 0g).

Sodium

  • Limit foods high in sodium to help control blood pressure.
  • Sodium is highest in fast or convenience foods, processed, and packaged foods (most frozen and canned foods also tend to have a lot of sodium).
  • Low sodium = less than 140 mg per serving.
  • Frozen or packaged entrees – aim for less than 600 mg per meal.

Carbohydrates

  • Carbohydrates consist of starches, sugars, and fiber. Despite what you may have read in the media, you do not need to choose products with the least amount of carbohydrates as possible. Instead, aim for higher quality carbohydrates that have more fiber. These include whole grain products like bread, pasta, rice, cereal, and crackers. Higher fiber carbohydrates also include fruits, vegetables, beans, and lentils.
    • High fiber = 5g or more per serving.
    • If you have diabetes, consult an Avance Care Registered Dietitian to help determine an appropriate amount of carbohydrates to be consuming!
  • Thankfully, the labels will now have to list grams of “added sugar”. This makes it easier for the consumer instead of having to search the ingredient list for words that mean added sugar. Limit added sugars to help decrease risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
    • Women: Consume less than 25g of added sugars daily.
    • Men: Consume less than 38g of added sugars daily.

Ingredient List

  • The ingredients are listed in order by weight, starting with the nutrient with the highest amount.
    • Whole grain products: to be sure it is 100% whole grain, the first ingredient should start with “whole”. Whole grain, whole wheat, whole rye, etc. If the first ingredient is “wheat flour” or “enriched bleached flour”, these are not 100% whole grain products.
    • The ingredient list will also clearly state if the product contains any of the common allergens.

Hopefully these tips will help you to confidently navigate a Nutrition Facts label. For those of you wondering how to prioritize nutrients in products like bottled salad dressings or store-bought pasta sauce where multiple nutrients like sodium, added sugar, and fat contents may be higher, it depends on your nutritional needs and health goals. If your goal is to monitor blood sugar, choose the products with the least amount of added sugar. To promote better blood pressure control, pay close attention to sodium. For fat content, be sure to compare products. Often salad dressings labeled “low-fat” or “fat-free” will add extra sodium or sugar to compensate for flavor. Instead, try to focus on the type of fat. Choose olive oil or canola oil-based dressings instead of creamy dressings to help cut down on saturated fat intake. Or, if you have spare time, you could always make a homemade salad dressing or pasta sauce to help control the ingredients!

 

If you need more help with reading nutrition labels or if you’re looking for guidance on how to meet your health and nutrition goals, reach out to schedule an appointment with an Avance Care Registered Dietitian by calling (919) 237-1337, option 4.

Grace is a registered dietitian working at the Wake Forest and Northeast Raleigh locations. She enjoys running, and especially likes doing races in other cities because it gives her an excuse to visit new places. She also loves trying new restaurants, spending time with family and friends, and cheering on the NC State Wolfpack at football and basketball games.

Categories: Education
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