How many of you read the label on a package of food before you toss it into your shopping cart?
If you do, then you get a major high-five!
If you don’t, that’s okay. You can still build this excellent habit that will help your family maintain a healthy diet.
And then we’ll give you a high-five (if you want).
Reading food labels makes a big difference when it comes to your family’s health. It ensures that you are purchasing foods that don’t have unnecessary sugar, sodium, fat or ingredients that aren’t beneficial to our bodies.
So it’s not only important to read food labels, but to know how to read them so you can decipher what it all means.
It’s a simple measure that will make you more conscientious about what you are putting into your body, and in turn will have a lasting effect on your well-being.
The Importance of Reading Food Labels
There’s a reason why packaged foods all have a nutrition label.
Well, for one, it’s required of most foods due to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. But that law exists because it is important that consumers have all of the facts about food products in order to make informed decisions about what they buy and put into their bodies.
The law gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate nutrition label of most foods, and to ensure that nutrition content claims meet FDA regulations.
Basically, we as consumers have the right to decide what we eat and what we don’t.
Food labels can therefore help you make conscious decisions, and healthy decisions, about what you eat.
It also means that major food corporations cannot make false claims or hide information about the contents of their products, and therefore cannot directly mislead consumers.
In turn, if you consciously and regularly eat a product that has, let’s say, 37g of sugar per serving in it, but that information is clearly displayed on the package, then you yourself are accountable for any future health issues you may have.
But anyways, let’s get back to how reading food labels can help you make better choices in regards to your health.
The presence of standardized nutrition labels makes it easy for all of us to compare the contents of similar products and decide which one we would prefer to consume.
All labels provide key information about any given packaged food, such as serving size, number of calories, fat content, cholesterol, protein, sugar content, carbohydrates, etc. And of course, each label also provides a list of ingredients so you know exactly how any given food product is made.
This information does two things:
1. It helps you make sure you are staying on track with your daily limits of certain food content.
2. It help you avoid certain ingredients if you have an allergy, food intolerance, or simply want to avoid particular preservatives, dyes, etc. into your body.
Sadly, many Americans do not pay much attention to nutrition labels. And many of us end up either failing to intake adequate amounts of key nutrients, or end up consuming too much of the bad stuff (particularly sodium, saturated fat and added sugars).
Part of this issue lies in the fact that some, if not most, people do not know how to properly read a nutrition label.
The Basics of Reading a Nutrition Label
Luckily, reading a nutrition label isn’t really that difficult.
Sure, you can get pretty in-depth and precise with it, but a quick glance over it can give you plenty enough information to make healthy choices.
So here’s a rough breakdown of all the key parts of every food label, and the areas where you should consider paying particular attention. We’re going to work top to bottom here to make it easy for you to follow.
1. Serving Size
The very top of any food label will define the serving size and how many servings there are per container. It’s perhaps one of the more obvious parts of the label, but it’s incredibly important.
Historically, the rest of the label listed all of the amounts per serving, not in the entire package.
So say, for example, you read that a bar of chocolate has 8g of sugar. Then perhaps you eat the entire bar thinking that you just consumed 8g of sugar. But, in fact, there are three servings per bar. So you actually just consumed 24g of sugar. Yikes.
If you skipped reading the serving size portion of a nutrition label, then the rest of the information you glean from the label could have been misinterpreted.
Now, this still holds true. As of May 2016, the FDA implemented multiple changes to the nutrition label.
Going forward, the serving sizes must be based on what people are actually eating, not what they should be eating. And for packages that are between one and two servings, the rest of the caloric and nutritional information must be labeled as a single serving since people tend to consume these size packages in one sitting.
Finally, for products that are larger than a single serving and meant to be consumed in multiple sittings, but could potentially be consumed in a single sitting, manufacturers have to provide labels with two columns. One column will have to indicate relevant information on a per serving basis, the other on a per package basis.
Now, these changes are gradually being implemented so you may not see them on all packages yet. So it’s still very important to read the serving size section carefully!
2. Calories per Serving
The next major area of the food label is the calories per serving (or per package, if it’s labeled as such).
Per those same changes we mentioned in regard to the serving size information, the caloric information now will be listed in larger type, making it easier for people to notice at a first glance.
Looking at the number of calories is especially important if you are trying to lose weight, but remember it also isn’t good to significantly limit your daily caloric intake.
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3. Percent Daily Values
Next on the label is the area that lists a few different nutrition facts about a product that we’ll go over in a minute. On the far right of this section, you will see a percentage.
This percentage is the Daily Value (DV), and it’s best explained with an example.
First, you should know that the percent daily value is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. So let’s say that you have a granola bar, and that granola bar lists 14% on the “Sodium” line of the label. That means that the granola bar provides 14% of the amount of sodium a person consuming 2,000 calories per day should eat.
This area of the food label is also very important because it can help guide you in determining how much of a nutrient you are putting into your body.
4. Nutrient Contents
The same section as the percent daily values has some key nutritional information to pay attention to, including total fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and protein.
With the fat, you should pay special attention to the saturated and trans fat. Most things have fat, but there is good fat and bad fat. So look at the saturated and trans fat lines to see how much “bad fat” there is because they can increase your risk of heart disease.
Sodium is also a key line to look at because too much sodium is a very bad thing and can cause high blood pressure.
Under the “Total Carbohydrates” line, there is a new line per the FDA changes for added sugars. Like fat, all food items have sugars because carbs are sugars. But it’s the added sugars that can really sneak up behind you because, again, it can cause chronic health issues.
Here, you will also see the amount of fiber, which our tummies love – so keep your fiber intake high!
The protein line is also a good one to pay attention to because it is so important for building muscle, bone, cartilage, skin, and blood. It’s a “macronutrient,” meaning your body needs a lot of it. Plus, it helps you feel full for longer.
5. Vitamins & Minerals
You should also look at the amount of vitamins and minerals at the very bottom of the label.
The label changes now require that vitamin D, potassium, iron and calcium content be included here, along with the percent daily values for each. You should aim for high levels of these nutrients.
Vitamins A and C are no longer required, but they are still important to our diets.
6. Ingredient List
Finally, there’s the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, and any foods with more than one ingredient are required to have this list.
Again, this is important for limiting or omitting certain ingredients from your diet.
Putting it All Together
This may seem like a lot of information, but you really don’t have to make it complicated.
To make it easy, pay attention to the lines on the food label that are important for you or your family’s diets.
You can always consult a doctor or nutritionist to help determine what you should pay close attention to when picking out foods for you and your family.
Just remember, reading food labels can help you keep your intake of the good stuff like vitamins, protein, and good fat high – and your intake of sodium, added sugars, and bad fats low.
Food labels are just one more excellent tool for helping you build a healthy lifestyle for your family.