One of the most common responses to the question, “How do I eat healthier?” is “Read the nutrition labels!” And while this advice is obviously given with good intent, it doesn’t necessarily help much if you don’t know how to read the labels correctly! While many people might believe they know the correct way to interpret nutrition labels, the reality is that the important information listed on food isn’t just calories, sugar, and fat content. In fact, there’s much more to reading nutrition labels, and doing so thoroughly could have a huge impact on the foods you decide to eat and those you choose to put back on the shelf.
Just a quick note: sometimes the best foods for us don't have any label at all! Take for example, an apple or chia seeds. There aren't any "ingredients" that make up either one, as with other whole foods. A good rule of thumb: if you can't pronounce or understand the ingredients on a package, it's often best to skip it all together.
For items that do have a nutrition label, here are a few things to consider:
The first item you should look at is the serving size; without understanding this number, nothing else on the label will hold any true significance. For example, 100 calories per serving may not seem extreme, but 100 calories per serving is way too much when one serving is one cookie in a pack of five. For this reason, it’s important to consider how much of the food item you will be eating in one sitting, and don’t forget to multiply the calories, sugars, etc. by however many servings you choose to eat.
Next, there are a few items on the nutrition label you should try to limit. More specifically, these nutrients come first on the label, and include total fat (including saturated fat and trans fat), cholesterol, and sodium. These are the nutrients which most Americans consume adequately or overly, and too much of them can increase your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure. That being said, the higher the levels of these nutrients, the further away you should step from that food item.
When you look to the right of the name of the vitamin or nutrient listed, there will be a percentage, also known as the “% Daily Value (% DV),” which tells you – you guessed it! – how much of your daily intake of each item is in one serving. You can also find more information about Daily Value in the footnote at the end of the label, which tells you how many grams of each nutrient is 100% of your daily intake based on a 2,000 calorie limit. Pay close attention to these percentages – without realizing it, you could easily consume a day’s worth of sodium in one food item!
This may all seem daunting. The good news, however, is that there are some portions of nutrition labels in which we want to see high numbers! When it comes to dietary fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron (anything your doctor has ever told you to get more of), the higher levels the better. For the good-for-you nutrients, 5% DV is considered low, while 20% is considered high.
It’s important to note that not everyone’s diet requires 2,000 calories (the intake on which all % DVs are based). If you’re concerned about your daily caloric intake, or think you need to change it, we recommend consulting a physician or nutritionist. Also, keep in mind that while noting the information on nutrition labels is important, we don’t advocate for calorie-counting as the most effective way of staying healthy. Checking nutrition labels can certainly help you decide between different products at the grocery store, but it’s not necessary to know the nutritional makeup of the hors d'oeuvres at your best friend’s wedding. Everything in moderation, superfoodies.