How Do You Crack the Code of the Nutrition Facts Panel?

Sometimes it feels like you need to be a detective to figure out all the clues to help you make a healthy decision. But reading food labels can pay off in helping you make informed choices when it comes to the foods you buy and may help you meet your health goals, too. Here are some tips to help you navigate the Nutrition Facts panel.

THE NUTRITION FACTS PANEL

SERVING SIZE

This is an amount of the food that is considered a single serving. The rest of the nutrition facts then provide information based on that amount. If the serving size says 1/2 cup, then the calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein, carbohydrates, fiber and other nutrients shown are for 1/2 cup of that food.

SERVINGS PER CONTAINER

This number tells you how many servings there are in the whole package. So if a package has 7 servings and you eat the whole package, you’ll be eating 7 times the calories and other nutrients. Time to take out the calculator!

The calories are the number of calories in one serving. Don’t forget this important fact. So if you eat more than one serving, you have to multiply the calories by how many servings you eat. If a package says 1/2 cup is a serving and you eat 1 cup, that’s two times the servings (1/2 cup x 2 = 1 cup).

TOTAL FAT

This is the number of grams of fat in a single serving. In a 2,000 calorie daily diet, most people should aim for between 45 and 78 grams of total fat per day, mostly from sources like plant oils, avocados, seeds and nuts including heart-healthy walnuts1.

SATURATED FAT

This fat is often called a bad fat, but a little saturated fat in the diet may not be harmful. Most people should aim for 7-10% or less of their calories from this fat or about 20 grams or fewer per day based on a 2,000 calories diet.

TRANS FAT

This is a bad fat. If the label shows trans-fats, find another food. Even if it says 0 grams, it’s important to look at the ingredient list below to see if the word “hydrogenated” is on the list.

CHOLESTEROL

Most people are advised to consume less than 300 mg of cholesterol each day. Take a look at the number and see what part of your overall meals and snacks that food will be.

SODIUM

Most people should aim not to exceed 1,500 mg of sodium daily, while some are advised that 2,300 mg is safe. The label will say how many milligrams of sodium are in a single serving. It will also list a DV (Daily Value) showing what percentage of 2,300 mg in one serving.

SODIUM

This is listed in grams on the package and is one of the nutrients we need more of as a population. Women are advised to get 25 grams or more daily, men are advised to reach 38 grams.

VITAMINS AND MINERALS

Nutrition Facts panels are required to list Vitamins A, C, E and the mineral Iron. They will be listed by percent only. The goal is to achieve 100% over the course of the day.

PROTEIN

This will be listed in grams. Protein can help with feeling satisfied and making energy from carbohydrates, protein and fat last longer. Not all foods will have protein, which is fine.

CARBOHYDRATES AND SUGARS

Carbohydrates are listed in grams and there are many forms of carbohydrates from complex whole grains, fruits and veggies to simple sugars like honey, cane sugar (table sugar), and maple syrup among others. While recommendations for individuals will vary, carbohydrate recommendations can generally go up to 300 grams per day in a 2,000 calorie diet.

1“Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces of walnuts per day, as part of a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet, and not resulting in increased caloric intake may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” (FDA) One ounce of walnuts provides 18g of total fat, 2.5g of monounsaturated fat, 13g of polyunsaturated fat, including 2.5g of alpha-linolenic acid, the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid.

References:

Rothman et al. (2006). Patient understanding of food labels: The role of literacy and numeracy. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 31(5).

United States Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2004). How to understand and use the nutrition facts label. Retrieved January 28, 2013, from

http://www.fda.gov/food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/NFLPM/ucm274593.htm#see5

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