Nutrition labels are literally on everything you buy in a grocery store that is edible, but the problem is that no one really knows how to read them. Sure, you can see how many calories are in a box of Cheez-Its, but how do you know when its too much? Here’s a quick and dirty way to look at what you’re buying so you can ask yourself whether the food you’re eating is healthy or how to calculate your daily intake.
[ Fun Fact #1: ] The FDA only controls what is on a nutrition label and nothing else on any item you buy. So if you are going to buy some tomato sauce and you see a garlic clove and some other spices in the picture on the front, make sure you check the nutrition label to see if those ingredients are actually in there! (Did you hear how Canada Dry Ginger Ale is being sued because there is no ginger listed on nutrition label? As a lover of ginger ale, I was pretty disappointed.)
So here’s the real stuff you came for – Here is how you should read a nutrition label:
- Serving size – remember that 1 cup is about the size of the palm of your hand. The rest of the information on the label is the amount of sugar, calories, sodium, etc. in one serving size.
- Calories – People think calories are the only thing they should watch, but I would argue that sodium and sugar are actually more important. Calories can serve as a good general view of how healthy or unhealthy something is, but looking at more specific values can give you a more accurate perspective.
- % Daily Value – the percentages you see on the right side is how much each serving contributes to a 2,000 calorie/day diet. A good rule of thumb is 5% is low, and 20% is high. So Keep everything bad less than 20% and everything good greater than 5%. (1)
- Sodium – aka salt. I can’t emphasize enough that the number you see is per serving, and it is recommended by the FDA that you only have about 2.3 grams of sodium per day. Take a look at one cup of instant ramen – close to 1000mg (1 gram) of sodium in it! That is nearly half of the sodium you should have in one day. When you look at how much ramen you get, it’s not very much food for how much salt you are eating.
- Sugar – Like I said earlier, goal of less than 20%. Take a look at the serving sizes on ice cream. Sometimes the tiny ice cream servings can be the same amount of sugar as a whole tub of ice cream. Remember that 1 teaspoon is approximately 4 grams of sugar. Previously, it was difficult to determine how much sugar was natural and how much was added sugar, but thanks to the FDA’s new nutrition labels sugar is listed as “added sugars”.
- Carbs – Remember, carbs break down to sugar when they are digested, which is why diabetics ar asked to count their carbs. The best thing you can do with carbs is eat complex carbs, so your body takes time to break it down and you feel full for a longer period of time (another post on this to come). The FDA recommends 300 grams of carbohydrates a day.
- Fat – The same 5%-20% rule applies. Now labels will include “Calories from fat” on the label. Make sure to pay close attention to saturated fats
[ Fun Fact #2 ] The FDA just came out with new nutrition labels and with the hope to help people become more aware of what they’re eating. Click this link for probably more information than you ever wanted about the new food label changes.