How to read a nutrition label, from serving size and added sugars to trans fats

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Nearly 9 in 10 Americans read nutrition labels. And the items most looked at are calories, sugar, sodium and serving size. But there are more opportunities to make the most of nutrition labels when considering our personal health needs.

“The great thing about nutrition labels is that you can zero in on information that relates to your health,” says Reena Panjwani, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “If you have high blood pressure, you may need to focus on sodium. If you have diabetes, you may be more focused on carbohydrates. All you need is a few pieces of information and you can break down any label.”

Breaking down the FDA’s new nutrition label, top to bottom

FDA Nutrition Label

 

Serving size / servings per container

Panjwani: The biggest misconception is that serving size equals the amount of food people normally serve themselves. For example, the serving size of cereal is typically 3/4 cup, but most of us pour cereal into a bowl without measuring. And we do the same with milk.

To get a sense of portion size, try measuring out a portion of the foods you eat often once or twice. This will show how many servings you’re actually eating. That knowledge can be especially helpful when it comes to packaged meals, frozen dinners or ramen noodles where nearly everyone eats the whole package, even though that may contain 2 or 3 servings per container.

Some products — such as boxed mac and cheese — also list nutrition information in 2 columns: “as packaged” and “as prepared.” If you’re preparing it according to the directions as most of us do (adding milk, butter, water, etc.), be sure to reference that column to get an accurate picture of what you’re consuming.

Calories / % daily value

Panjwani: You’ll find calories at the top of every label, and  the % daily value running down the right side.

  • Calories refer to all the units of energy you get from any source (carbohydrate, fat, protein, alcohol) in a serving of a food or beverage. Calories are now listed larger and bolder at the top of products, so they should be easy to find.
  • % daily value tells you how much of a nutrient you’re getting based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Panjwani: The truth is most people don’t know how many calories they consume each day. And often they underestimate when they guess. If you’re an athlete, you probably need more than 2,000 calories. If you’re trying to lose weight to control a health condition, you may need less than that.

The % daily value is most helpful for showing how much of the product contains fat or sugar or sodium. So you can use that information to compare similar products or to plan your diet for the day. For example, if something is 30% fat, that’s a significant portion. If you choose to eat that item, keep that in mind when planning your next meal.

Total fat / saturated fat / trans fat

Panjwani: You may notice that “calories from fat” has been removed from nutrition labels. That happened recently because research shows the type of fat you eat is more important than the amount. When you’re looking at fat on a label, try to:

  • Keep saturated fats under 10% of calories for your whole day, and
  • Avoid trans fats as much as possible since they’re typically more processed and bad for heart health.

Fat facts: Decoding the difference between mono, poly, trans & saturated fats

Sodium

Panjwani: Sodium is a micronutrient, which is an important thing to understand.

All nutrients can be divided into 2 categories:

  1. Macronutrients, which the body needs in large amounts and which give you energy (calories), and
  2. Micronutrients, which the body needs in smaller amounts.

For the micronutrient sodium, you want to consume 2,000 mg or less per day.

  • When you’re looking at a single-serving meal such as a burrito, look for one that has less than 500 mg of sodium.
    If you’re looking at something you only use a little bit of, like salad dressing or a condiment, 140 mg is a good, low-sodium target.

Carbohydrates / dietary fiber / sugars

Carbohydrates

Panjwani: Carbohydrates are something people with diabetes will look at since they need to know the total carbs they’re consuming in a day. However, most of us don’t need to be too concerned with carbs.

Fiber

When it comes to dietary fiber, those numbers are a little clearer. In general:

  • Females need 28 grams of fiber per day.
  • Males need 35 grams of fiber per day.

Fiber is one place to aim high because most people don’t get enough. When you’re looking at bread, cereal, pasta or other starches, try to get products with 5 grams or more of fiber.

Sugar

Sugar is another part of the nutrition label that recently changed. As a society, we need to consume less sugar to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits. So added sugars are now listed on nutrition labels.

Added sugars include:

  • Sugars that are added during the processing of foods (sucrose, dextrose)
  • Foods packaged as sweeteners (table sugar)
  • Sugars from syrups and honey
  • Sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices

So plain yogurt will have sugar listed because lactose is a sugar that naturally exists in yogurt. If you get vanilla yogurt, the sugar that was added with the vanilla flavoring will be listed as added sugar.

In general, try to keep your daily sugar under 50 grams per day.

Protein

Panjwani: Protein is a category where each person has their own needs. So there’s no percent daily value that applies to everyone. But everyone can keep these 3 things in mind:

  1. Foods that are higher in protein may keep you full longer.
  2. So look for snacks that have at least 5-10 grams of protein.
  3. And make sure the meals you eat early in the day contain protein for fuel.

Vitamins

Panjwani: Vitamins are personal as well, but one label change to be aware of is that:

  • Vitamins A and C are no longer required on labels since deficiencies are rare today.
  • Vitamin D and potassium are now required because many Americans don’t get the recommended amounts. Vitamin D can reduce your risk of osteoporosis, while potassium can help reduce your risk of high blood pressure.

Iron is another good thing to look at as many of us will be anemic at some point in our lives.

Anemia 101: Causes, symptoms and why it often goes untreated

Ingredients

Panjwani: Below the vitamin and mineral section, you’ll see a list of ingredients. One key thing to know is that ingredients are listed from what the product contains most of down to what it contains least of by weight. For example, if sugar is listed last, there’s not much sugar in that product by weight. But if sugar is listed second, that product is likely high in sugar.

Also, if your goal is to eat fewer processed foods, the ingredients section can help. You want to be able to recognize most of the ingredients. And chemicals or stabilizers tend to have names people are less familiar with or that are hard to read.

The bottom line

A few good general rules that the FDA recommends are choosing foods that are:

  • Higher in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium
  • Lower in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars

But it’s really all about balance.

Panjwani: Nutrition labels are just a guide, and they don’t hold any moral value. Think of it as a fact sheet about what you’re about to buy, and use it to meet certain goals. At the end of the day, it’s just a piece of information you can take or leave.

5 simple tricks for reading a nutrition label

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.