The food label, also called the Nutrition Facts Panel,
can often be confusing on first glance. The purpose of
label is to help you make healthy choices so you can
lose weight and still eat the foods you enjoy. If you
get in the habit of reading and understanding food labels,
you are on your way to a healthy diet and good foundation
in preventing disease.
Now let's dissect the wording and numbers on the label.
The first thing to look at is Calories. Many people are
surprised to see that many of their favorite foods have
a lot more calories
then they thought. Once you locate the number of calories,
you should look at the number of servings per container.
If you plan to consume the whole package, multiply the
calories by the number of servings. Serving
sizes are typically regulated so you should be able
to compare foods side by side. For example, all ice creams
have the serving size of ½ cup. If you eat a whole
cup, you are eating 2 servings of ice cream.
The food on the label below has 250 calories and 2 servings,
so if you consume the whole package, you have 500 calories:
(250 calories x 2 servings). Juices and sodas almost always
have more then 1 serving per container. Make sure to multiply
the calories by the number of servings by container to
get the total number of calories you are consuming. Many
serving sizes are smaller then the amounts you consume
so you must look carefully at the number of servings.
Now let's take a look at the fat.
The number next to the word "fat" tells you
how may grams of fat there are in one serving of this
food. The food in the above example has 12 grams of fat.
The number to the right of that is called the % daily
value. The % daily value for fat is the maximum amount
of fat you should consume for the entire day. This particular
food has 18% of the fat you need for the entire day, if
you eat one serving. If you eat 2 servings, this food
has 36% (18% x 2 servings) of the fat you need for the
entire day. If you consume the whole box, you get about
1/3 of all the fat you need for the day. If you read all
your labels and know all the other foods you consume on
a daily basis, you can effectively calculate your daily
consumption and daily
All this information is based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie
per day diet. The information at the bottom of the label
(i.e. in the footnote) gives general recommendations for
the population. You may need more or less calories depending
on your size, daily physical activity and even on certain
medications which may also influence your calorie intake.
A few other points to consider on the food label are
According on federal regulations, there are only a few
vitamins and minerals that are required to be listed.
Although there may be a plethora of beneficial vitamins
and minerals in many foods, the only ones required to
be listed are vitamins A and C along with the minerals
sodium, calcium and iron. For example, the mineral potassium
in the above example is listed but not required.
Getting in the habit of reading food labels increases
your nutrition I.Q. and keeps you disciplined on your
calorie intake. Some food companies try to make their
foods look healthier by adding unnecessary wording to
their food labels. Many labels have claims such as low-fat
or high in Vitamin A, but by understanding the interpretation
of food labels, you can better assess the validity of
these claims for your dietary needs. Don't be fooled by
pretty packaging or extra wording. Know how to read the
basic label and you are on your way to better health and
Shari Portnoy, MPH, RD, LD/N is a Registered and Licensed
Dietitian. She holds degrees in both Nutrition and Public
Health and has completed the U.S. Food Laws course at
the Michigan State University Institute of Food Laws.
She has been a featured speaker at the American Culinary
Federation National Convention and a board member of the
American Dietetic Association.