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How Reading Nutrition Labels Can Improve Your Health | A Peek to Wellness

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Knowing how to read nutrition labels can improve the way you eat.

More and more people are trying to be more aware of the food that they eat. 

It is for this reason that it is imperative to read the nutrition labels on the products that you buy. 

In this article, you’ll take look at nutrition labels. 

What do all those words and numbers mean on nutrition labels?

Front Labels Are Sneaky

group of nutrition labels grouped together in a cluster

It shouldn’t be hard to read the words printed on a box, right?

The answer might not be as simple, you think. 

In modern society, we don’t usually have the best attention spans. The quicker we get our answers, the better we feel. 

Many food manufacturers are taking advantage of habit. 

When you pick up a product at the grocery store, where are your eyes usually drawn?

That would be the bold, big text on the front labels. 

How Food Manufacturers Can Trick Us

See the phrases “Heart Healthy” or “Enriched with Antioxidants,” and many of us will automatically put trust in those words. 

That is the response that they want you to have. 

By “they”, think the companies behind the products.

The food companies want you to believe that the product fulfills their promises long enough that you make it past the checkout aisle. 

The problem is that some products may not be telling you the entire truth on the front label. 

What you think that you are getting may not be accurate. 

The claims that the companies are making may be immediately contradicted by looking at the nutrition labels. 

A 2011 study investigated the accuracy of over five hundred products with health claims sold in Australia. The researchers discovered that 31% of those products would not be able to support their claims. [1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23308399

Additionally, experts stated that many people are more likely to buy a product because it has a health claim. [2]https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-read-food-labels#look-on-the-back

If you’re like me, that doesn’t make you feel good.

What labels should you watch out for?

zoom in on ingredients on nutrition label

According to Kerry McLeod, author of The Last Diet Book Standing, the following front label terms should be red flags: [3]https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/how-read-nutrition-label#1

  • Fortified. Fortified foods have nutrients that aren’t naturally in them added during processing. One example is milk fortified with vitamin D. Vitamin D isn’t naturally in milk. [4]www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/fortified-and-enriched-foods#1
  • Enriched. Enriched foods lost nutrients during processing. Companies add those nutrients back in. One example is wheat flour that may have folic acid and iron added back after processing. [5]www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/fortified-and-enriched-foods#1
  • Added, extra, plus. These are words that describe the same things as fortified and enriched. 
  • Fruit drink. It can be easy to mix “drink” and “juice.” McLeod says that fruit “drink” means that there might not be much fruit in that product. Plus, it might have a lot of added sugar. 
  • Made with wheat, rye, or multigrain. Unless the word “whole” appears before any of these words, the product may have very little of the grain. It might be less than you hope for when you buy the product. You also have to watch out for darker slices of bread that may get that color from caramel coloring. [6]https://www.health.com/food/16-most-misleading-food-labels?slide=6284c7c9-f65d-4e49-ab0a-eb24e5b61cce#6284c7c9-f65d-4e49-ab0a-eb24e5b61cce
  • Natural. I know that this one can get me. The product was natural in the beginning. However, what you are holding is a product that when through processing. What may have been natural at one point is no longer at all-natural. Companies could also add unhealthy things such as high fructose corn syrup. 
  • Organically grown, pesticide-free, or no artificial ingredients. These claims aren’t always reliable. The company may not have gone through the process of verifying those claims through a trusted oversight company. 
  • LightFor some products, this might not mean what you think. Some manufacturers might say that the flavor is “light,” but not that there are fewer calories. [7]https://www.health.com/food/16-most-misleading-food-labels?slide=a4cd813e-10c7-4676-9743-c9105170a462#a4cd813e-10c7-4676-9743-c9105170a462
  • Zero trans fatThe label might say 0 trans fat, but it might still contain an ingredient that will still give you trans fat. These ingredients include hydrogenated oils or shortening. [8]https://www.health.com/food/16-most-misleading-food-labels?slide=b84a025b-9ddd-4887-993d-80e58adfc6a5#b84a025b-9ddd-4887-993d-80e58adfc6a5
  • No sugar addedThe company may not have added sugar but may add something that will spike your blood sugar just the same. [9]https://www.health.com/food/16-most-misleading-food-labels?slide=4ae621a1-b63c-4cb2-8db5-12c77f0c8021#4ae621a1-b63c-4cb2-8db5-12c77f0c8021
  • Sugar-free or fat-free. The product may not represent these claims. The company may have added ingredients that may not be sugars or fats, but are no better than them. 

Ways to help you make better choices

all natural sign of fruits

Here are some words that you can look out for to help you make better choices:

  • 100% whole-wheat bread.
  • High-fiber, low-sugar cereals
  • Contains 100% fruit juice
  • 100% whole-grain
  • 100% all-natural
  • No preservatives
  • Certified Organically Grown

What about Product Dates?

Before writing this article, I thought that the dates on food products were different ways of saying the same thing. 

It turns out that I was wrong. 

I also learned that including these dates are voluntary actions by the manufacturers, not a federal requirement. 

Here are some product dates that you might see and what they mean: [10]https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/reading-food-labels

sell by date on egg carton
best if used by date on milk gallon
  • Sell by. This is a manufacture suggestion of how long stores should have that product available for purchase. You, as a consumer, should buy the product before this date. 
  • Use by. This date tells you how long the food will be at its highest quality. After that date, many products become stale or nasty. You can use some products sometime after this date, but some products decline very quickly. 
  • Best if used by. This date is how long the food will have its best quality or taste. This makes it similar to the use by date. I used to associate it as identical to the sell-by date. 

What Makes a Food Label?

I hope by now, you see the value of understanding how to read food labels correctly.

You have also seen some of the things to watch out for when you are reading labels.

Now, we are going to look at the different components of a nutrition label. 

I will also talk about some of the new FDA guidelines for nutrition labels. 

Starting on January 1, 2020, companies need to comply with these changes. Smaller companies can wait until 2021. 

We are going to use two examples to illustrate everything. 

toaster strudel nutrition label
almond milk nutrition label

The image on the left is a nutrition label from Pillsbury Toaster Strudel. The image on the right is a nutrition label from Blue Diamond’s Almond Milk.

Serving Size

Let’s start at the very top with the serving size information. 

There are two things that you are supposed to get with this information.

One, you get the number of servings per container. 

In our pastry example, there are six servings per container. The entire package has six pastries. 

In our milk example, it says that there are eight servings per container. 

The servings per container, especially for liquids, are usually based on the single-serving size. 

Many manufacturers base this number on what a standard person might consume in one sitting. 

From this, you should understand that in many cases, these are suggestions and aren’t standards. 

Typically, you would want to pay attention to the single-serving size section. 

All the numbers that follow this section are based on that single serving size. 

However, there are some products where people are just as likely to consume the entire container in one sitting. 

In that case, the FDA requires that companies put two labels. [11]https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/changes-nutrition-facts-label 

One example is a pint of ice-cream. You might get a little bit of that pint. 

Or you can eat the entire pint by yourself. 

Be careful with serving sizes

Some companies may try to use schemes to make you think that their product has fewer calories than in reality. 

A company might have a single serving size as a half-cookie. 

However, you might eat the entire cookie. 

Without looking at the serving size, you might think that the 100 calories you see are what you ate. 

In reality, you just ate double that amount or 200 calories.

I will note that by 2020 and 2021, the manufacturer will have to be more truthful in their serving sizes due to new guidelines by the FDA. [12]https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/changes-nutrition-facts-label 

Let’s take a look at our examples:

toaster strudel nutrition label
  • The single-serving for the toaster strudel is one pastry. If you eat toaster strudels, think about how many you eat. Do you typically eat one? Do you eat less than one? Or do you eat more than one?
almond milk nutrition label
  • A single serving of this almond milk is 1 cup (240 milliliters). The picture below shows about one cup of milk. If you are drinking milk, is this how much you would drink in one setting? Or would you drink more? 
clear cup of milk

Taking charge of your food intake includes controlling your portions. 

Before you can add the grams of carbs or grams of protein you ate, you need to understand how much you ingested. 

Total Calories

This section tells you the number of calories the product has. 

As I said previously, the single serving size determines this number. 

Some products also include calories from fat. 

This number just tells you how much of the total calories are coming from fat. 

However, the FDA no longer requires that manufacturers put calories from fat. 

From our examples:

toaster strudel nutrition label
  • One toaster strudel has 180 calories and 60 calories from fat. 
almond milk nutrition label
  • One cup of almond milk has 30 calories and 20 calories from fat. 

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The Nutrients: Part 1

In the nutrients section, you get a list of which nutrients are in the product. You also get the amount in either grams (g), milligrams (mg), or micrograms (mcg). 

For right now, we are focusing on the left side of the label. 

The first half of this section lists the nutrients that many people consume in excess. 

These nutrients are Total Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium

Since many people meet or exceed the adequate amounts of these nutrients, they are listed first. 

The FDA states that many people might be eating these nutrients a bit much. [13]https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/changes-nutrition-facts-label 

In some labels, you should see the Total Fat category broken down into more sub-categories. 

The FDA requires producers to list Saturated Fat and Trans Fat

This requirement holds whether they contain it or not. 

If you are mindful of the types of fats that you eat, you want to pay attention to this section. 

One toaster strudel:

toaster strudel nutrition label
  • Total Fat is 7grams (g). 2.5 grams (g) is Saturated Fat. 0 grams (g) is Trans Fat. 1.5 grams (g) is Polyunsaturated Fat. 2 grams (g) is Monounsaturated Fat
  • Cholesterol is 0 milligrams (mg)
  • Sodium is 180 milligrams (mg)

1 cup of almond milk:

almond milk nutrition label
  • Total Fat is 2.5 grams (g). Saturated Fat is 0 grams (g). Trans Fat is 0 grams (g). Polyunsaturated Fat is 0.5 grams (g). Monounsaturated Fat is 1.5 grams (g). 
  • Cholesterol is 0 milligrams (mg)
  • Sodium is 170 milligrams (mg)

The Nutrients: Part 2

The label lists the following nutrients after the nutrients above. 

If you are following a low-carb diet like the keto diet, you would probably pay a lot of attention more so than others might. 

These nutrients are Total Carbohydrate and Protein

The FDA now requires that products list the amount of added sugars it holds. 

Even if it doesn’t have any added sugars, the company still needs to reflect that fact. 

Sugar is a carbohydrate, so you should find this category under carbs. 

Under Total Carbohydrate, you might also find the amount of dietary fiber

Dietary fiber is a carbohydrate, but your body cannot digest it. 

Even though your body cannot digest it, getting enough every day is good for your health. [14]https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/how-read-nutrtition-label#2

For one pastry:

toaster strudel nutrition label
  • Total Carbohydrate is 27 grams (g). Dietary fiber is less than 1 gram (g). Sugars is 10 grams (g).
  • Protein is 2 grams (g).

For 1 cup of milk:

almond milk nutrition label
  • Total Carbohydrate is 1 gram (g). Dietary Fiber is less than 1 gram (<1g). Sugars is 0 grams (g). 
  • Protein is 1 gram (g). 

The Nutrients: Part 3

Underneath the protein category, is where you get to a list of minerals and vitamins. 

In the past, the FDA required companies to list Calcium, iron, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C amounts on their labels. 

The other vitamins and minerals were up to the companies to decide. 

New guidelines require that Calcium, iron, Vitamin D, and potassium will appear on the label. [15]https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/changes-nutrition-facts-label 

Vitamin A and Vitamin C are no longer required. 

Companies can choose to include them if they want. 

According to the FDA, this section is relevant because it not only essential to decrease certain nutrients but know how to increase as well. 

Another change that the FDA now requires is that the gram amount of Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium must be on the label. 

In our examples, the gram amounts aren’t present. Only the percentages are listed. 

We talk about what those percentages mean in a later section. 

Here is the vitamin/mineral section of a Hawaiian Bread. 

vitamin mineral nutrition label of bread

Its single serving size is 2 ounces (57 grams or about 1-inch slice). 

  • Vitamin D is 0.1 micrograms (mcg)
  • Calcium is 30 milligrams (mg)
  • Iron is 1.4 milligrams (mg)
  • Potassium is 80 milligrams (mg)

Daily Value Footnote

After the vitamin and mineral section, you get to the bottom of the nutrition label. 

There are two parts to this footnote. 

Part 1

almond milk nutrition label

The first part of the footnote tells the consumer that the manufacturer calculated that percentages based on a 2,000 calorie diet. 

The FDA requires this statement on nutrition labels. 

There are two ways in which you might see this statement:

  • *Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs
  • *The %Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. The general advice is 2,000 calories a day. 

The second statement is the newer statement that the FDA changed to help consumers understand what the percents mean. [16]https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/changes-nutrition-facts-label 

Daily Value numbers represent the recommended daily calorie amounts. Experts recommend consumers consume either 2,000 or 2,500 calories

So this statement is telling you that the percent that you might see next to a nutrient is assuming that your daily caloric intake was 2,000 or 2,500 calories

Part 2

almond milk nutrition label

The second part of the footnote is not required but may appear on products with space for more extended nutrition labels. 

This is a table of recommendations of each nutrient based on either a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie intake. 

The recommended daily amount of Total Fat is less than 65 grams for a 2,000 calorie limit. For 2,500 calories, that intake is less than 80 grams. 

With dietary fiber, the recommendation says you need at 300 grams of carbohydrates on a 2,000 calorie diet. For 2,500 calories, that intake is at least 2,500 calories

Whether you get the short footnote or the extended one, the FDA says that they are the same across all food products. 

% Daily Value

The percent daily value is a percent that you see on the right side of the nutrition label. 

It is related to the daily value footnote discussed above. 

When you see the percent, you might think that adding them together gives you 100%, but that is not the purpose of the percent. 

Based on the daily value of that nutrient on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet, you get the percent. 

Let’s explain this concept using our examples. 

toaster strudel nutrition label

In the Toaster Strudel, the daily value percentage for Total Fat is 10%. 

According to the footnote, the recommended intake of Total Fat is 65 grams. Again this is based on 2,000 calories

Therefore, the 7 grams of Total Fat you get from 1 strudel is 10% of 65 grams. 7/65 is about 0.10, which is 10%. 

To remain within the recommendations, you would need to consume foods that are equal to or less than 90% of the daily value for Total Fat

Again, this is all based on the serving size. 

If you eat two Toaster Strudels, you will get 20% of your Total Fat intake. 

Tips about %Daily Value

  • If a food says 5% or less for a nutrient, it is considered low in that nutrient. For example, our almond milk is low in dietary fiber because it says 4% DV. 
  • If a food says 20% or higher for a nutrient, it is considered high in that nutrient. For example, the almond milk is high in Vitamin E since it says 50% DV. 
  • To lower your intake of a nutrient, try to consume foods that say 5% or less for that nutrient. 
  • If you are trying to increase your intake, consume foods that say 20% or more for that nutrient. 
  • If your calorie intake is less than 2,000 calories, your %DV for each nutrient will be higher. The keto diet limits carbs to 20 grams a day. If you consumed one cup of our almond milk, you would get 1 gram of carbs. The %DV will be 5% for you instead of the 0% we see on the label. 
  • On the other hand, a higher calorie intake means your %DV will be lower. 

The Ingredients List

toaster strudel nutrition label

Depending on the product, the ingredients list may come after the nutrition label. 

This list is just as it sounds — a list of the ingredients that the company used to produce the product. 

The list organizes the ingredients by the quantity. 

The ingredients listed closer to the beginning makeup more significant amounts of the product. 

This rule includes the ingredients in the parentheses. 

In our almond milk example, the first three ingredients are almond milk, calcium carbonate, and sea salt. 

According to Healthline, a list longer than three lines probably illustrates a processed product.  [17]https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/understanding-ingredients-on-food-labels

It is important to understand that there can be many names that describe the presence of a nutrient in a product. 

You might not see sugar listed, but a related word might be used, instead, in a sometimes sneaky manner. 

Here are some additional terms for some nutrients: [18]https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/understanding-ingredients-on-food-labels , [19]https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-read-food-labels#serving sizes

  • Sugar: can also mean sucrose, glucose, cane juice, fructose, beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, invert sugar, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, raspadura sugar, confectioner’s sugar
  • Syrup: can also mean carob syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, golden syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, rice syrup.
  • Added sugar: can mean barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, maltose. 
  • Sodium: can also mean salt, sodium benzoate, disodium, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium nitrite
  • Carbs: can be any type of sugar such as sucrose or fructose, sugar alcohols, any word that ends with starch, fiber, flour
  • Trans Fat: can be found in ingredients such as partially hydrogenated oil, hydrogenated oil

Takeaways

Knowing how to read nutrition labels helps you take charge of what you eat. 

If you know what you are looking at, you can make informed decisions about the products that you buy. 

Even if you aren’t following a 2,000 calorie diet, the %DV gives you a quick evaluation of each nutrient in a packaged product. 

If you enjoyed this article, learn more about leafy, green vegetables you should be eating here.

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