Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Reading Food Labels for Smarter, More Nutritious Shopping & Eating

Reading Food Labels for Smarter, More Nutritious Shopping & Eating

Food labels have become very popular reading material, which is good news for those who are reading them now and their families who are reaping the benefits of better nutrition.

It may not, of course, be the best of news for those whose products might not fit well into a healthy diet.

We read food labels for a variety of reasons, including finding out how many calories or fat is in a food, if it contains something we may be allergic to or if there is enough fiber in a food to help regulate our systems.

We can learn a lot about which foods to select when we compare food labels of common foods.  Which brand contains more of what we want and less of what we don’t want can be clearer when we read the label. Comparing prices of similar items is usually not enough to make the healthiest choice.

Food Labels Are Not an Easy Read

Unfortunately, food labels and claims on the package can be confusing, especially when you are trying to decide if the claims on the product match what is actually stated in the nutrition facts label found on the container.

Manufacturers claims about what their food items are (or may be) can be very attractive to us label readers. Who doesn’t want a food that is “free”. Would that be calorie free, fat free, sugar free or wheat free?

Sometimes it can be confusing to know which food product in your hand is really healthy and if it is what you are searching for to feed your family. When something says it is fat free, it is important to read the ingredients and the nutrition fact panel because free does not mean zero. By regulation it can contain up to 0.5 grams fat per serving and it might be in the form of trans fat or saturated fat which is probably not what you wanted to eat.

Many of us also are concerned with food additives and are looking for foods that are all-natural. This unfortunately has no real definition in terms of regulation.

Let’s find out what is on the label and how to make the most of it for you and your family.

Nutrition Facts on the Food Label

You may have heard that nutrition labels are getting a facelift soon. It has been in the news especially since there is some discussion about how much is too much and our need to control our portions to prevent obesity.

The proposed new labels are supposed to be easier to understand and a few of the pieces of information are bigger so they may be easier to read and draw our attention. The controversy comes from the portion size. The current labels list the portion sizes that were deemed to be appropriate for us to eat. The new label will state the portion size as we actually or customarily eat it.

For example, a can of soup now states 1/2 cup serving and one can I have in front of me says that the can is 2.5 servings. This is where the confusion comes in because looking at the label I might believe that since I eat the whole can that is the serving and I am only getting 860 mg sodium according to the label. I don’t realize that I am really eating 2.5 servings x 860 = 2,150 mg sodium (more than I should eat all day!). The new labels therefore, will state the full can as a serving and all the nutrients will be adjusted to coincide with the amount a person would likely eat.

Most dietitians will continue to stress portion control because it is not always about what you eat but as much about how much you eat. As you can see, it is pretty easy to overdo sodium, calories and fat if we are not eating the appropriate portion sizes.

Here’s a sample of the proposed new food label. proposed new food label

You can see some of the proposed changes such as the bold letters for calories and servings per container. It still gives nutrient content of selected vitamins and minerals but they will include those that are associated with health risk and those not usually deficient were dropped. The labels will continue to list ingredients in the order of content and will be based on 2000 calories per day. You will notice that the %DV was moved closer to the specific nutrient for better comparison between products.

One of the latest additions on the proposed new food label is added sugars. The amount of sugars present was on the label and will remain, but now the amount of sugar added by the manufacturer will be represented to help us all make better choices for reducing foods with empty calories in favor of more nutrient dense sources.

When you look at the nutrition panel, you want to be sure you begin by looking at the portion size.  Remember that all the information about what is contained in the food is based on that specified amount of food.  If you eat more or less than the stated portion size, you need to adjust the content information to match the amount you have eaten.

food label sampleFor example, if canned soup has 900 mg of sodium in a ½ cup serving and you eat one cup, you will consume 1800 mg of sodium not 900 mg.  This is important if your doctor has prescribed a special diet for you to follow to treat a medical condition.  When reviewing calories you might want to remember that per serving 40 calories is low and 400 calories or more is considered high.

All items will have a % daily value (DV) listed which will tell you per serving how much of a particular nutrient the food will contribute to your overall day’s intake and help you select a balanced diet.  This information is especially important to compare different brands of similar items.  Generally 20% DV or more is high and 5% DV or less is low when the %DV is based on a daily diet of 2000 calories.

When looking for fat on the label, be sure to read carefully the different kinds of fat that make up the total fat content per serving.  An item with the least amount of saturated fat is the healthier choice as well as the one with no Trans fat.  Look for the lowest %DV in this section.

Ingredients in foods are listed in order of weight.  The ingredient listed first is the largest quantity and the last one listed is the least quantity contained.

We have all been doing more label reading. According to a study by the Food and Drug Administration — “the percentage of respondents reporting that they “often” read a food label the first time they purchase a food product rose from 44 percent in 2002 to 54 percent in 2008, and, among these consumers, two-thirds reported using the label to see how high or low the food was in components such as calories, sodium, vitamins or fat.”

Nutrition Claims on Food Labels

The government requires that claims made on food labels meet their definitions.  These claims include phrases such as low sodium, light, lean, reduced, and free.  The Food and Drug Association (FDA) regulates these and other food claims used on foods.

The USDA regulates the claim of organic and ensures that the food meets standards for how the food is grown and produced.  However, this does not always mean that this food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally grown items.

Learning about what all the words on the label mean and how to fit these into your meal planning can make your trip to the grocery store less confusing and result in more nutritious foods for you and your family.

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