Learn about labels

We all want to know more about the foods we eat, right? And food marketers are quick to oblige. Pick up the closest box of something in your pantry, and you might be bombarded with information about that food — all-natural, low-fat, whole grain…the possibilities are virtually endless.

The fact of the matter is, what’s printed on the front of the box is somewhat regulated — there are certain things food manufacturers can and cannot say. For example, certain criteria need to be met for a food to be labeled a “good” or “excellent” source of a nutrient, or “low fat,” or “low in sodium.” But what about other claims that imply a benefit – like “all natural?” Even labels such as “whole grains” may contain a fraction of whole grain ingredients, with the majority made up of refined grains.

The most trusted source of information is the Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredient list, often found on the side of a package. This information looks deceptively simple to read, but in fact takes some practice to learn exactly what you should be looking for and what it means to you. Here are the most important items:

  • Serving size: Does the nutrition information listed on the panel account for the entire package, or some fraction of it? My favorite are those large single cookies, with the serving size set at 1/2 cookie. Like you’d eat just one half and put it away!
  • Calories, fat and cholesterol: Taking into account the serving size, are these numbers manageable? These are things you want to limit, with a total daily intake not to exceed 100% Daily Value (that percentage next to the grams) Is that single food item really worth a quarter or more of your daily recommendation for total fat, for example?
  • Fiber and calcium: The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans name fiber and calcium two “nutrients of concern,” meaning we need to get more of these.  Most of us need between 25-38 grams of fiber per day, and 1,000 mg calcium. You want to shoot for foods that provide at least 10% of these two nutrients per serving.
  • Ingredient list: This perhaps has the most information about what’s in the food you’re eating, but is also probably the hardest to decipher. For grain products, even those labeled with “whole grain” on the front of the package, you want the first ingredent indeed to be a whole grain – whether it’s whole wheat flour, brown rice, etc. If you’re looking to avoid trans fats – which we all should – don’t trust the trans fat line on the nutrition label. See if you can find “partially hyrdrogenated” in the ingredient list. If so, your product contains trans fats – though not enough per serving to be labeled as such on the panel above (it would need to have at least 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving to make it onto the label. If the product has 0.49 grams of trans fat, the label reads zero!).

For more information about reading food labels, the Food and Drug Administration has a good online resource for consumers that’s fairly easy to understand. There’s also a great book by a fellow dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix: Read It Before You Eat It that I recommend. And of course, if you have any questions you can always leave me a comment here.

Published by

Elana Natker, MS, RD

I'm a dietitian, communications professional, wife, mother - just your typical modern-day woman trying to juggle it all.

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