Understanding Food Labels

How do I decipher food labels?!

Food labels tell you what vitamins and nutrients are in a product. It also tells you what portion you should be eating. You can find out how many calories are in food from food labels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) decide what goes on food labels. All food labels must show the same health information. It is impossible for food companies to lie on their labels. For example, if your favorite yogurt says “low fat” then it must meet strict guidelines to have that label. It is important to look at the whole label when considering a food.

  • Serving size: all the information on the label is based on this amount. The serving size on your favorite cereal might be just one cup – when you’re used to eating two cups! This is why serving size is important. One hundred calories for a bottle of juice that you drink in one serving might not seem bad, but what if the label says there are three serving sizes in that bottle? That means there are actually 300 calories in the juice.
  • Calories: This section shows you how many calories are in one serving size, and how many of those calories are from fat. Thirty percent of your total calorie intake should be from fat, but more than 30 percent is not good.
  • Percent daily value: these percentages are based on the “average person’s” daily calorie intake – which the government decided should be 2,000. However, there are some guidelines to follow… 60 percent of calories should be carbohydrates, 30 percent should be fat (unsaturated fats), and 10 percent should be protein.
  • Fat: we need fat to insulate our bodies and store vitamins. Unsaturated fats (in vegetable oils, nuts, and fish) are considered good fats because they do not increase high cholesterol. Saturated and trans fats do raise both cholesterol and the risk for heart disease. These fats eventually clog your arteries.
  • Cholesterol: Like fats, there are good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Bad cholesterol raises the risk for heart disease
  • Sodium: small amounts of sodium (salt) are necessary but too much sodium increases water retention (which leads to bloating) and increases blood pressure. Most packaged foods have sodium to help preserve it.
  • Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates, including sugar and fiber, are good when they come in the form of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains. Sugar is listed under carbohydrates separately and there is always more sugar in a product than you would think! Even foods that are “low-fat” have a lot of sugar to keep the good taste. Sugar adds a lot of calories, too. Some foods (soda and candy) are considered “empty calories” because they have a lot of calories and sugar but practically no nutritional value.
  • Fiber: the main ingredient for maintaining digestive health. Fiber reduces bad cholesterol and has no calories. Fiber makes you feel full so you are less likely to get hungry again and eat other foods.
  • Protein: Your body needs protein for energy, especially if you do not get enough fats and carbohydrates.
  • Vitamins and minerals: Obviously, these are really important. You want to pick foods with high levels of vitamin A and C. You also want foods with a lot of iron and calcium.