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Nutrition Facts Label: A guide on how to read them

Depending on what type of shopper you are, you either study the nutrition facts label on foods you buy or you completely ignore it. The nutrition facts label is something of a scientific bonus reading that comes with just about any food you buy. 

But that nutrition facts label is there for a reason. Prior to regulations on foods, all sorts of ugly things could get into the things we eat without our knowledge. The nutrition facts label is there to inform, not confuse. Yet, it does appear confusing to many of us. 

For people who pay close attention to what they eat, the nutrition facts label is something they know quite well. For others, it may remain something of a mystery. In any case, how well do any of us know what all of those things mean? Even people who are attuned to nutrition for fitness reasons, or those on restricted diets, may not know exactly what all of that information really means in terms of what they eat. 

In this article, we will explore some of the intricacies of the nutrition facts label. What is listed? What is the bottom line for all those facts and figures?

What is the Nutrition Facts Label?

Until the 1960s, food came with little to no information. There was no way to tell if the food you ate was in any way nutritious or even safe. As early as the 1940s, some food products came with details on calories and sodium, but this was largely voluntary on the part of food producers. At the same time, until the middle of the 20th Century, most foods were produced at home from basic ingredients, and people generally knew what was in the food they ate. 

With the proliferation of processed foods in the 1960s, regulations regarding the contents of these foods became necessary. In 1969, the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health recommended that FDA consider developing a system for identifying the nutritional qualities of food. This became the food nutrition label. 

The nutrition facts label provides details about food nutrient content. The amount of fat, sugar, sodium, and fiber must be listed in detail. The label also carries a footnote. This gives you a break down of daily values (DV) based on a 2000-2500 calorie per day diet. 

What's Listed? What’s changed?

The initial labels were required to list the amount of fat, sugar, sodium, and fiber per serving size. The serving size needed to be prominently displayed. This list has changed over the years, and so has the ways the label presents information.

In 2016, the FDA changed the labels to help people make more informed choices. These changes are expected to be adopted by all food manufacturers and producers by 2021. The changes that are being enacted include:

  • Calories and servings per container must be displayed more prominently in a larger print. 
  • Adding the category of “added sugars” to the category of “total sugar.”
  • Removing “calories from fat.” FDA research has shown that the type of fat that is in foods is more important than the amount of fat. 
  • There will be an updated list of nutrients. The new list will include Vitamin D and Potassium. Vitamins A and C will no longer be required to be listed, but they can be listed voluntarily. 
  • In addition to listing calories and nutrients for a single serving, the label will include calories and nutrients for the whole package, particularly for foods that are generally eaten in one sitting. 

Some of these changes reflect the ways people actually eat. The old labels listed information based on an idea that was not reflective of how people actually consume foods. 

The Serving Size

Serving size is one place where people get confused as to how to read the nutrition facts label on foods. There is a distinct difference between what we call portion size and what the FDA nutrition facts label designates as a serving size. 

  • Portion Size: This is how much food you eat at one time. Whether in a restaurant or at home, or from pre-packaged food, the amount you actually eat can be substantially larger than the designated serving size. 
  • Serving Size: This is the amount of food listed on the product’s nutrition facts label. The levels of nutrients, fat, calories, etc. are calculated for the quantity of food listed on the label as the serving size. Remember, the serving size can, and often do, differ substantially from your individual portion size. 

The fact is portion sizes vary from one person to the next. Portion sizes have also grown over the years. A recent study on obesity has shown that people are generally eating more food at a sitting than they have in the past. This study found:

  • Adults today eat an average of 300 more calories per day than they did in 1985. 
  • Portion sizes have steadily grown in the last 40 years. 
  • Americans eat out far more than they used to. 

All of these things contribute to what we call portion size. When reading the nutrition facts label, keep in mind that the nutrition facts are based on serving size. 

Calories (and Calories from Fat)

This designation can be confusing for two reasons. When we calculate fat and calories for fitness and health, we are breaking things down into categories we can control with diet and exercise. On the nutrition facts label, the calories and fat are calculated as part of the entire serving size. Second, the total calories contain total calories from fat. 

It works like this: the nutrition facts label will list total calories per serving size. Then in another place, the label will list calories from fat. These are not separate calories. If the label states 150 calories, and the calories from fat are listed as 50 calories, this simply means that the other calories come from sources like carbohydrates, sugars, or alcohol. It is not an additional 50 calories. 

The Nutrients: How Much?

The nutrients on the label are broken down into different color-coded sections. Each tells you how much is in this product and how much each ingredient figures into a recommended daily diet. These nutrients are sections 3 and 4 on the nutrition facts label. 

Number 3: This section of the label is identified in yellow. These are the nutrients you should limit in your diet. They are nutrients that we generally get enough of or, in some cases, too much. Total fat is broken down into saturated fat and trans fat. This section also includes cholesterol and sodium. These are all the nutrients we need to limit in our diets. 

Number 4: This section lists the needed nutrients. These are the nutrients you need to get into your daily diet to maintain your health. Most people tend not to get enough of the nutrients, and the FDA created this section in order for consumers to track how much of these daily requirements they get from their food. 

This section will list things like fiber, vitamins A and C, and iron. Calcium, for example, is listed because it is a necessary nutrient for fighting things like osteoporosis. This section helps you balance the equation of limiting some nutrients while boosting the healthier ones. 

The point of the current nutrition facts label is to allow you to know more than just the basic ingredients of a product. The label is coded so that you are able to balance your nutrition needs against the kinds of things contained in these foods. 

Footnote on the Bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label

After the heading “% Daily Value,” you will see an asterisk (*). This refers to a footnote at the lower part of the label. This footnote defines the nutrient levels within a 2000 calorie per day diet. What this means is the % Daily Value, or DV, you see listed in the food nutrition label is the percentage of that particular nutrient based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. If you consume more or fewer calories, this percentage will change according to your caloric intake. 

Take note of how some of the DVs change while others, things like cholesterol, for example, remain the same no matter the daily calorie intake. 

Percent Daily Value (DV) 

The Percent Daily Value (%DV) is calculated by the FDA for one serving of food. For example, if the food nutrition label states that it contains 15% for calcium, that means that one serving of this product, as defined by a serving size on the same label, contains 15% of the recommended levels of calcium for a 2000-2500 calorie daily diet. 

Even if your diet is higher or lower, you can still calculate your percentage of nutrients from the nutrition facts label. The label will tell you if it is higher or lower in a specific value. For example, the label will say:

Low: 5% or less of a nutrient

High: 20% or more of a nutrient

You can even simply estimate what percentage you are getting from a given product based on the DV on the label. Getting into the habit of checking this part of the label can be important if you are watching something like sodium content. 

Comparison Example

An average box of macaroni and cheese will serve as an example of how to read the food nutrition facts label. 

Serving Size

The first part of the label contains information on serving size. In order to make this accessible, the first units of information are provided in familiar terms, cups, pieces, tablespoons, etc. Then these units are put into metric units like grams and milligrams.  

The serving size will determine the rest of the numbers on the label. It is crucial that you pay attention to serving size. Be honest with yourself about your own portion sizes as opposed to the designated serving size. If you are likely to eat two serving sizes, then you will need to double the rest of the information on the label. 

Calories and Calories from Fat

The number of calories will tell you how much energy you can get from a single serving size. Many people consume far more calories than they need without getting the minimum daily requirement of nutrients. By paying attention to the calories section of the label, you will be better able to monitor your calorie intake.  

For example, there are 250 calories in a single serving of macaroni and cheese. In the case of processed macaroni and cheese, there are 150 calories from fat. More than half the calories in a single serving of this product come from fat. This means if you eat the whole box, you will consume 500 calories, most of which come from fat. 

As a general rule, below is a guide to counting calories per serving size:

  • 40 calories are low
  • 100 calories is moderate
  • 400 calories or more is high

Use this rule as you count calories using the food nutrition label to help maintain your health. 

And 4. Nutrients and how much. 

The fist box on the label contains the things you should limit in your diet. Total fat, cholesterol, and sodium are listed in percentages of a healthy daily allowance based on 2000 calories per day diet. These things are listed so that you can limit the amount you consume in a day. This box is identified in yellow. 

You will notice that the label distinguishes total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Health experts recommend that you keep your consumption of these things to a minimum. 

Section four, indicated in blue, lists the percentage of need nutrients contained in a serving size of this product. These are the nutrients you want to get enough of in your daily diet. One serving size of this product contains a specific percentage of Vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron as part of a 2000 calorie per day diet. At the top of the list is dietary fiber, and health experts say most Americans do not get enough dietary fiber. In the case of an average box of macaroni and cheese, there is 0% dietary fiber. 

The footnote at the bottom of the label

This footnote is marked by an asterisk (*) on the food nutrition label. This is the part of the label that explains that the percentages provided are based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. If your diet exceeds or is less than this calorie count, you will need to adjust your caloric and nutrient intake accordingly. If your diet exceeds 2000 calories, you will need to decrease the amount of cholesterol and fats according to the levels stated on this product label. 

The percentages will increase or decrease based on your calorie intake. However, the levels of cholesterol and fat will remain the same. For example, if the serving size provides 15% of the calcium needed in a day, you will need to adjust your levels of calcium-based on your specific calorie intake. You will not need to adjust the amount of cholesterol and fat. 

Wrapping things up

The nutrition facts label that is affixed to all foods is a resource for the nutrition and even the safety of the foods you consume. It is there for help rather than to confuse. Although the nutrition facts label is now a ubiquitous feature of food packaging, prior to this label, there was no way for consumers to know what was in the foods they bought. 

From a general run-down of basic nutrition to recommended healthy serving sizes, you are able to determine how many nutrients you are getting from your foods. You can also determine what to limit in your diet from paying attention to the food nutrition facts label. This is crucial to people who want or need to keep track of things like cholesterol and added sugar. 

With so much of our food pre-processed, it is important to know what this food contains. By learning to read the food nutrition facts label, you can make informed and safe decisions about the kinds of foods you buy and consume. By making this information available and easy to understand, food manufacturers have often responded by using healthier ingredients without relying on non-nutritional fillers. 

Ultimately, the food nutrition facts label has worked for the best interest of us, the consumers.

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