Oftentimes, the more health claims on a product, the more unhealthy it is. Fresh produce for example does not have any health claims on the product except for the barcode sticker on an apple. All packaged products contain a nutrition label and the remainder of the packaging is designed to grab the consumer’s attention and convince them to purchase the product. Food manufacturers and R&D companies dedicate a lot of time and money into the packaging of products. It is critical that you, the consumer, understand how to read and interpret the nutrition label and not rely on the health claims on the packaging. Companies will only highlight the good things and minimize the not-so-good things. So, it is up to you to educate yourself so that you can decide whether these products are actually good for your health.
Nutrition Label Tutorial Steps
Look at the number of servings and serving size per container. The serving size reflects the amount that people often eat or drink but is not a recommendation of how much one should consume.
Adjust the calories and macronutrients based on the serving size you consume. If you want to ensure you are only consuming 1 serving size, weighing your food is more accurate, but using measuring cups/spoons is still better than the “eyeball test.” Remember, one heaping tablespoon is often two flat tablespoons and one cup of loosely packed sugar is less than one cup of tightly packed sugar, hence the reason that weighing is more accurate.
Look at the % Daily Values to evaluate the macro and micronutrients.
The %DV is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. The average person requires much less than this per day. This is an arbitrary number chosen in order to calculate the %DV. The %DV helps you determine whether an item contains a HIGH versus a LOW amount of that particular nutrient per serving.
If the %DV is <5% then it is considered low. If the %DV is greater than 20%, it is considered high.
Choose products that have less than 5% of the total daily DV (%DV) of the following: saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars as these are associated with adverse health conditions including heart disease and diabetes.
In general, choose foods that are nutrient dense (contain micronutrients like calcium, iron, potassium) and dietary fiber. This may vary however based on your underlying health conditions. I.e. If you have end stage renal failure, then your provider may recommend that you actually avoid high potassium-containing foods. If you have an iron overload condition like hemochromatosis, your healthcare provider will likely recommend that you avoid high iron-containing foods.Look at the % Daily Values to evaluate the macro and micronutrients.
Look at ingredients that should be avoided or limited to ensure they fall within your dietary needs and/or preferences
Review the ingredients list. Choose products that have minimal ingredients. Be wary of products that contain excessive ingredients and hidden sources of sugar.
If you have food allergies or autoimmune conditions like celiac disease, make sure products do not contain these ingredients. I.e. If you have celiac disease, make sure the label states it is certified gluten free. If you have a peanut allergy, make sure the item states that the item does not contain peanuts. Many items are manufactured with numerous other products so even if the food is naturally gluten or peanut free, the label may say that the product may still contain trace amounts of these ingredients.
- Information adapted from the FDA website: https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/new-nutrition-facts-label
- What’s New with the nutrition facts label? https://www.fda.gov/media/135197/download
- What are calories? Calories: What’s in a Number?
- The Lows and Highs of Percent Daily Value: https://www.fda.gov/media/135304/download
- Added Sugars versus Total Sugars: https://www.fda.gov/media/135299/download