Do you ever go to the grocery store and get completely overwhelmed by the information on a nutrition label? How are you supposed to eat healthy if you don’t even know what you are looking at? Or you skip reading them altogether?
Not to fear, we have a quick guide below for navigating those nutrition labels, including what to look for and what to avoid.
According to the Mayo Clinic, you want to look at 4 main points: serving size, how many calories in one serving, % (percent) daily value, and the ingredients list.
Starting with the serving size. Products and food items that you may think are only one serving (like a ramen noodle packets, a bottle of juice, pints of ice cream, etc), may sneakily have more servings than you think. For example, one pint of Ben and Jerry’s has 3 servings. Check out the serving size at the top of the nutrition label to see how many are in food items and try to stick to one serving.
Now that you know how many servings is in the food item, you can check the total number of calories. The Mayo Clinic goes on to state that 40 calories is low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 or more per serving size is high. Remember based on the serving amount, the total calories may need to be multiplied based on how much you consume.
Check with your doctor or a dietitian for more specific information on how many calories you should be consuming daily based on your age, sex, height, weight, overall health and physical activity level.
Next, look closely at the % (percent) daily value. This is the percentage of daily value each nutrient has in the serving of food. These are typically based off a 2,000 calorie per day diet. The % daily value shows how much that particular food and nutrient contributes to a total daily diet. And helps you to determine if a serving is high or low in a specific nutrient. General guidelines for % daily value if a nutrient has 5% or less per serving, this is considered low. If a nutrient has 20% or more per serving, this is considered high.
General rule, try to choose foods that are higher in % daily value of fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. And lower in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
Lastly, review the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed by volume, meaning the higher up on the ingredients list the more of that item there is in your food. Try to avoid foods that have sugar listed as the first ingredient, this includes sugar going by other names such as high-fructose corn syrup, dehydrated cane juice, and more.
Bonus tips: watch out for ‘added sugars.’ The ‘total sugars’ lists the total number of sugars in the food product, both naturally occurring and those added during processing. If you are watching your sugar intake, watch out for the added sugars we see in a lot of products. Check the allergens list. Under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, companies are required to list a ‘contains’ statement near the ingredients list and advisory statements for addressing potential cross-contamination associated with the 8 major food allergens – milk, fish, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, wheat, eggs, and soybeans. If you are someone that struggles with food allergies, pay close attention to these statements.
For more support in your nutrition needs, check out some of the free and low cost support services on our campus, such as the Student Wellness Center’s Nutrition Coaching, Student Life Dining Service’s Nutrition and Wellness team and Wilce Student Health Center’s Nutrition Therapy services.
-Jordan Helcbergier, Wellness Coordinator
How To Read Nutrition Labels (mayoclinic.org)
How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label | FDA
Understanding Food Labels | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health