Updated: Dec 3, 2021
We have all seen nutrition labels as they are on almost every packaged food you can buy at the grocery store. While these labels are meant to be a guide for people to see how much nutrition they’re getting from a certain food, they can often be confusing to understand. So, this week we’re giving you a guide on how to read nutrition labels and choose nutritious foods.
The first section of a nutrition label is the serving information. The label will say how many servings are in the entire package of food, and how big the serving size is. For example, for this loaf of bread, the serving size is one slice of bread (and there are 16 slices of bread in the package), so the nutrition label only contains information on one slice of bread.
The serving size is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink, but merely an example of how much people typically eat or drink.
The second section is the number of calories there are per serving size. A slice of this bread is 110 calories.
2,000 calories a day is a general recommendation, but this can vary depending on your height, weight, sex, and level of physical activity. You can determine your estimated calorie recommendation here.
The third section is a list of nutrients. The nutrients are given in grams (g) or milligrams (mg).
The right-hand side lists the percentage daily value (%DV), meaning how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to your total diet. In general, 5% or less of a nutrient is considered low, and 20% or more in considered high.
The total fat in one slice of this bread is 3%, meaning it provides 3% of the total fat you need in a day. This is a low amount. It has 0% saturated fat, which is good. You want to limit your intake of saturated fat since too much of it can lead to an increased risk of developing health conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
You also want to avoid sodium. Many Americans consume too much sodium, as there is a lot of salt in restaurant food, pre-packed foods such as canned soups, cold cuts and cured meat, and highly processed foods, such as microwavable meals and fast food.
Bread can be high in sodium too, but two slices of this bread would equal 14% of the daily value of sodium, which is under 20%. The sodium can add up, though, if you have two slices of toast for breakfast and two slices with a sandwich for lunch. This is why it’s important to eat varied food throughout the day in order to have a balanced diet.
Total sugars include naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. Foods have sugars naturally, but you want to avoid too many added sugars. It can be hard to stay within calorie limits while meeting important nutrient needs when you consume too much added sugars. A slice of this bread makes up 6% of the recommended daily sugar intake, which is relatively low, even if you have a couple of slices.
Nutrients that are good to consume include fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium.
As you can see, nutrition labels can be confusing. The best thing to do is eat as many whole foods as possible and eat prepackaged foods that have under 20% of sodium, sugars, and saturated fat. Whole foods include grains (whole grain rice, quinoa and rolled oats), beans and legumes (lentils, beans and chickpeas), unsalted nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables. Limit eating red meat and eating out at restaurant, since restaurant food is notoriously high in sodium.
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