How to Read Nutrition Labels
Decoding the Nutrition Facts panel
Overwhelmed by all those grams, percentages, and hard-to-pronounce words on the ingredient list? You're not alone. "The Nutrition Facts panel is experts-only stuff, useful just for those who have a degree in nutrition," observes Adam Drewnowski, PhD. But a few key details are all you need to decide if a food aligns with your healthy eating goals.
Nutrition counselor Caroline Kaufman, RDN, recommends going into the grocery store with a game plan: "Know what you are looking for, so you can quickly scan the label for the most important information," she says.
We'll show you what to zero in on.
The serving size listed at the top affects the calories and all the nutrient amounts below. If you tend to eat more than the listed serving size in a single sitting, make sure you do the math to get the right info.
If most of the fat content comes from healthy unsaturated fat, you're probably good to go. If the fat is mainly saturated and/or the product has any trans fat, put it back on the shelf. Trans fat has been shown to increase levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol while decreasing levels of "good" HDL cholesterol—a double whammy.
Manufacturers are no longer allowed to put trans fats in their products as of June 2018. But foods produced prior to that date are still permitted on store shelves until January 2020.
Don't be fooled by a label that lists 0 grams (g) trans fat. Because of a labeling loophole, a product can contain up to 0.5g trans fat per serving and say it has none. Check the ingredient list: If it includes partially hydrogenated oil, then there is trans fat in there. Shortening is another source of trans fat.
For many people, this is the first and most important stop on the label. But a higher-calorie food might be worth eating if it also contains lots of nutrients. (More on that to come!)
Vitamins and minerals
The Daily Value is the amount of each nutrient that's considered sufficient for most healthy adults. A food that contains anywhere from 10% to 19% of the DV is considered a good source of a nutrient.
Excess sodium can raise blood pressure, which increases heart disease risk. A high amount of sodium on a nutrition label may be a sign of a more highly-processed (read: not-so-good-for-you) food, Kaufman says.
Plus, most of us are eating too much sodium. The Daily Value is 2,300 mg, which is equivalent to about 1 teaspoon of salt; and the American Heart Association reccomends a limit of just 1,500 mg for most adults. But the average American consumes more than 3,400 mg of sodium a day.
This general guide is helpful for reading nutrition labels: 5% DV for sodium is considered low, while 20% DV or more is considered high.
On many nutrition labels, this number doesn't distinguish between naturally-occurring sugars (like lactose in milk and fructose in fruit) and added sugar (like high-fructose corn syrup and brown rice syrup). To figure out how much added sugar is in the product, you need to look at the ingredients (see next slide). But fortunately that's changing: By January 1, 2021, all manufactureres must switch to a new nutrition label thst specifically lists grams of added sugar. Large manufactuerers must comply by January 1, 2020. And the label is already appearing on many packaged foods.
If added sugar isn't listed in the nutrition facts, you can look for it in the ingedients list, where it often hides under sneaky aliases. Scan for the words "sweetener," as in corn sweetener; and "syrup," as in brown rice syrup or malt syrup. Also watch for words ending in -ose, like "glucose."
If added sugar is one of the first two ingredients in a product, think twice about bringing it home. Ingredients are ordered by volume, so the higher up on the list an ingredient is, the more of it a product contains. This is an easy way to spot foods that include a lot of added sugar. (Naturally-occurring sugar won't be listed in the ingredients.)
But this method isn't foolproof. "Sometimes, manufacturers split up sugar into dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, cane crystals and so on, so none of them are the first ingredient, even though if you added them up, they would be," explains Walter Willett, MD. "You might consider avoiding any product if there is sugar in more than one form."
To ID heart-healthy and fiber-rich whole grains, look for the word "whole" before the name of any grain, as in whole wheat. Popcorn, oatmeal, and quinoa are also considered whole grains.
If you see the word "enriched" before a grain, it's a sign that the grain has been refined, meaning it has been stripped of the germ and bran, which pack most of the grain's nutrients including fiber.
Look for at least 3g of fiber per serving in any product that contains grains, including bread, crackers, pasta, and even some soups.