Every package, box, bottle or can of food has a nutritional label, but very few people actually know how to read and understand it. Looking at these labels can make you feel like you’re reading a foreign language, so you may be tempted to completely ignore them. However, if you’re going to make healthy, informed decisions, you need to know exactly what you’re eating. In this article, I’ll break down nutrition labels to help you know and understand what you’re looking at.
The serving size tells you how much of the item makes up one serving. For example, one half cup of ice cream generally equals one serving. All of the nutritional information on the label coincides with that specific serving size. So, if you have one full cup of ice cream, you’re having twice the serving size, which means you need to double all of the numbers on the nutrition label.
Servings per container
This one is pretty self-explanatory—it’s the number of servings in each container. If the number is 4, for example, then there are four servings in that container. If you choose to eat the entire contents in one sitting, you should multiply the rest of the numbers on the label by four.
Calories are listed per serving, so it’s important to keep that in mind when dishing up your plate.
Calories from fat
This number signifies the number of the total calories that come from fat. Let’s say there are 200 calories listed for one serving of a specific food. If there are 100 calories from fat, this means half of the total calories are fat calories. Let me clarify, this is not an additional 100 calories—it’s merely the ratio of fat calories to non-fat calories.
This line gives you the total amount of fat in the food, including healthy and unhealthy fats. Below this number, the types of fat are broken down:
• Trans fats are extremely unhealthy and have actually been removed from most foods.
• Saturated fats (found in butter, cheese, animal products and coconuts) are thought to cause health problems in excess, so the American Heart Association recommends eating less than 13 grams of saturated fats per day.
• Unsaturated fats include both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and are considered to be healthy fats (e.g. olive oil, fish, and flaxseed). Anytime you see numbers behind these types of fats, it’s a good thing.
Cholesterol is naturally produced in the body, which means you really don’t need it from your food. Plus, getting too much from your diet has the potential to produce health issues.
This is the amount of sodium per serving, and (as with cholesterol) it should be consumed in moderation so as not to lead to health problems. Sodium is found in all sorts of foods, making vigilance a necessity. Consider your options, and choose foods with low or reduced sodium contents.
This section gives you the number of total carbohydrates per serving. It is then further broken down into two more categories:
• Dietary fiber gives the number of grams of fiber each serving contains. Fiber is a great for your body, so the bigger this number, the better.
• Sugars are also categorized under carbohydrates. However, unlike fiber, a high number here is not something you want. Currently, calories from sugar make up more than 13% of the average American’s daily diet. Ideally, you should keep it below 10%. Simple tactics—such as cutting out sugary beverages—can make a huge difference to your sugar consumption.
Protein is crucial for building and repairing muscles and cells throughout your body, which means adequate protein intake is vital. Foods that are high in protein will help fill you up, and will keep your hunger at bay longer than low-protein foods.
At the bottom of the nutrition label, the amounts calcium, iron and vitamins A and C will be listed. If the product contains additional vitamins and minerals, they are listed on a voluntary basis by the distributor.
Lastly, at the very bottom of the label, you’ll find a table with the nutritional components in one column and numbers in two other columns. This is merely giving you recommendation ranges. For example, if you’re following a 2,000 calorie per day diet: you should consume less than 65 grams of total fat; less than 20 grams of saturated fat; less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol; less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium; 300 grams of carbohydrates; and 25 grams of dietary fiber.
As you can see, if you break it down, the nutrition label isn’t as confusing as it first appears. It’s there for your benefit, so please use it to make educated and informed decisions about what you choose to fuel your body.