The Basics of Using and Understanding Nutrition Facts Labels
By Stephanie Fassbender
University of Wisconsin La Crosse Community Health Education Intern
Langlade County Health Department
Eating a well balanced diet is crucial to achieving and maintaining optimal health and wellbeing throughout life. It can help you feel your best, stay strong, reduce the risk of some diseases; and, if you already have certain health issues, good nutrition can help you manage the symptoms. The food we eat provides our bodies with the energy, protein, essential fats, vitamins and minerals we need to live, grow and function properly. To get the right amount of these nutrients for good health, we need a wide variety of different foods.
Nutritional habits, both good and bad, often start in the grocery store. When buying groceries it’s important to look at the nutrition label to find out more about the foods you eat. Taking the time to do so will help you find foods that are low in sodium, saturated fat, and trans fats; are good sources of iron, calcium vitamin C, and fiber; and compare similar products to find out which is best for you. The following are some pieces of information to help you start reading and understandings nutrition facts labels.
Remember to check the serving size and compare it to the portion you would actually eat. If the label serving size is one cup, and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the calories, fat and other nutrients listed on the label.
Calories and Calories from fat
Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of food. Many people consume more calories than they need without meeting the recommended daily amount of some nutrients. Whether you want to gain, lose, or maintain, paying attention to the calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight.
Percent Daily Value
The Percent Daily Value (DV) is a guide to the nutrients in one serving of food. For example, if the label lists 15% for calcium, it means that one serving provides 15% of the calcium you need each day. A good rule to go by is the 5%-20% rule, which says that 5% or less DV is low, and 20% or more DV is high. You should try to aim for a low DV (5% or less) in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium; and you should aim for a higher DV (20% or more) in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
As a general rule you should try to eat less fat, cholesterol and sodium. Eating less of these nutrients may help reduce your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers. You should also try to aim low for Percent Daily Value of these nutrients.
Get Enough of These
Most people don’t get enough fiber, Vitamins A and C, Calcium, and Iron. Eating more of these nutrients will help increase or maintain good health and reduce your risk of certain health problems. Getting enough calcium may reduce your risk of osteoporosis and eating a diet high in fiber promotes healthy bowel function. In addition, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products and low in cholesterol and saturated fats can help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Check the Ingredient List
Ingredients are listed on nutrition facts labels in descending order by weight, so the ingredients listed first are the most plentiful in the product. This information may be helpful to people with food sensitivities or those who avoid certain foods such as pork, shellfish, or added sugars.
While the nutrition facts label can be a great tool to help you limit the nutrients you want to cut back on, it can also be a helpful way to find foods that contain the nutrients you should be getting more of. Regardless of your current habits or knowledge, it’s worth your time, and with a little practice, easy to start reading and understanding nutrition facts labels. Doing so can have a great impact on your overall health and wellbeing.
For more information on nutrition facts labels, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration www.fda.gov or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics www.eatright.org. Both websites are reliable and accurate sources of information.
**The recommendations discussed above are general recommendations for an average healthy adult. Before making changes to your diet based on the above information, you should have a conversation with your physician**