Food Labels – Understand and Use Nutrition Facts

Whole food rarely has food labels, so in complete honesty, the ideal diet would need no food label skills.

Comparing the ideal diet and real-life eating is like comparing apples and oranges. Or perhaps it is like comparing home-cooked beans and “beans” in the form of chips. You get the picture.

Would you like to know how to use the nutrition facts on food labels more effectively? It is important to make informed food choices that contribute to a healthy diet and delicious food.

food labelsFood Label Overview

Serving Size: Serving sizes are standardized to make it easy to compare similar foods. This information is provided in familiar units like cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, or the number of grams per serving. When you pay attention to the number of servings in a package of food, it can be shocking to realize that the typical portion for your appetite is actually 3+ servings per the food label. That has happened to me. It is easy to be fooled, so check those servings and get real about how much you are eating.

Calories and Calories from Fat: Many people consume more calories than they think they do. While new science is teaching us that food is more than calories, and not all calories are created equal, calorie counts are meant to measure how much energy you get from a serving of this labeled food. The number of servings you eat determines the number of calories you receive. Here’s a good example: a can of yellow sweet corn may be labeled at 133 calories per serving, but remember that after you open that can and cook it on your stove with butter, the calorie count goes up. Great news: Calories from Fat is a new detail on food labels. When you look at that can of corn, you will learn that 10% of those 133 calories comes from fat, or 13.3 calories (that’s before you add butter).

Spotlight on Fat: If you began watching what you ate in the 1970s, you began training to eat a Low Fat diet. For the past 40+ years, Americans looked at the fat on food labels to make sure they were reducing the fat in their diets. Not all fat is bad, and eating healthy fat with slow-digesting carbohydrates is now considered the ideal. If you want to be kept up to date on the Low Fat vs. Healthy Fat science, let me know here.

Limit These Nutrients: The yellow section on our food label image gives us information about nutrients that we should monitor to avoid chronic diseases like heart disease, some cancers, high blood pressure, and obesity. Check out the food label on your favorite packaged foods to see what kind of fat and sodium is in your favorite foods.

food labels

Any guesses as to how much nutrition is on these food’s labels?

Get Enough of these Nutrients: The blue section on our food label image gives us information about nutrients we may be lacking. Most Americans don’t get enough Vitamins A and C, dietary fiber, calcium, or iron in their daily food plan. I am most passionate about helping my coaching clients to eat enough dietary fiber. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, healthy whole grains, and whole foods, along with healthy sources of fat and protein, is the key to longevity and a thriving body! How do you do this? Understanding what is in your food is step one.

Spotlight on Calcium. Looking at the % for calcium on food labels tells you how much one serving of that food contributes to the total amount you need per day.  Our food label image shows that 5% of the Daily Value needed is supplied for a person eating a 2,000-calorie daily food plan. Let’s go a little deeper here: health experts teach that an adult needs to eat 1,000 mg of calcium per day (that is the 100% DV in a 2,000-calorie diet). Milligrams of nutrients are not listed on the food label. If you are feeding growing teenagers, they may need 1,300 mg of calcium daily, so their %DV would actually be 130% based on this information. Here’s some food for thought: The amount of calcium in milk, whether skim or whole, is generally the same per serving, whereas the amount of calcium in the same size yogurt container (8 oz.) can vary from 20-45%DV. Yes, it’s true. We have to educate ourselves to be smart consumers of packaged food.

What is the Deal with the Percent Daily Value (%DV): Based on key nutrients for a 2,000 calorie daily food plan, the %DV is a frame of reference for whether or not you are eating a balanced diet. This percentage helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient you need. Some foods, like trans fats, do not have a %DV, because they should NEVER be eaten. It’s good to know what food contains that toxic ingredient, so always look for that when you read a food label.

Spotlight on %DV. The %DV doesn’t add up vertically to 100%. Instead, each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirements for that nutrient within a 2,000 calorie daily food plan. Here’s a little 5% trick for you! The green section on our food label image shows %DV numbers. If any of them are 5% or less, that means a single serving of that food is low in that nutrient. If your health requires that you limit saturated fat, for example, and the food label says 5% or less, than you can consider that a low saturated fat food. On the flip side, if any food on the label is marked as more than 5%, that is good to know! For instance, if you are needing to increase food with dietary fiber, and this label tells you that it has a %DV of 0% for fiber, it just doesn’t meet your food quality standard.

Well, now how do you feel about your expertise as a food label reader? It can be a bit overwhelming, and perhaps that’s why many people just skip that step altogether. Have you pushed your grocery cart down the canned goods isle and had to play “dodge the label-readers” game? It’s always exciting to me to see folks–especially young people–reading those food labels. After they read them, I often hear them saying, “No Way! It’s just a bunch of junk.” Many mass-produced foods are beginning to be understood for what they are; food-like substances. I think that this information is powerful, especially when we all apply it to our decision making and purchases.

Best wishes,
Coach Georgianne Holland

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