How to Read Food Labels for Healthy Eating?

How to Read Food Labels for Healthy Eating?

Food labels are there for a purpose but unfortunately most people interpret it wrongly and thus ending up consuming more calories/nutrients than they think they are taking. So it is very important to understand how to read food labels for a healthy eating and living.

Watch_Out_For_Nutrition_Label_For_Healthy_Eating
Watch_Out_For_Nutrition_Label_For_Healthy_Eating

The intend of this post is to highlight the general mistakes that most consumers do while reading a food nutrition label and also help them to effectively read and understand a food label.

Segments of a food label:

A sample Biscotti product’s food label is used in this post for explanation purpose. Also, the food label used in this post is split into 5 segments for easy understanding. The segments are shown in below figure.

Nutrition_Label_Segments
Nutrition_Label_Segments
Serving Size:

The serving size indicates the quantity of food for which the nutrition details are given in the label. Serving size is generally given in terms of cups or pieces followed by metric units like grams or ounces. In the above nutrition label, the serving size is 1 biscotti which weighs about 24 grams.

Serving_Size
Serving_Size

Just below Serving size is the “Number of Servings” which indicates how many servings of food is available in that package. In our example, there are 8 servings of Biscotti’s available in the package (see figure below).

Number_of_Servings_in_a_Container
Number_of_Servings_in_a_Container

This is very important piece of information and if misinterpreted, it will totally change how much you are consuming. For example, if you eat 4 pieces of Biscotti’s thinking that you are eating only half of the calories mentioned in the nutrition label, you are entirely wrong. 4 Biscotti’s are equal to 4 servings as per the nutrition label and hence you would have consumed 4 times the calories, nutrient numbers and percentage daily values. See below table comparing the calories and nutrients for 1 serving Vs 4 servings.

Serving_Size_Misconception
Serving_Size_Misconception

Calories:

The calorie section of a nutrition label generally has information about “Calories” & “Calories from Fat”.

Calories in a nutrition label indicates how much energy you get by eating 1 serving of food available in that package. Look at the nutrition label. The calories in 1 serving of biscotti is 110.

Calories
Calories

Calories can generally be obtained from the three major macronutrients “Carbohydrates”, “Protein” and “Fat”. And “Calories from Fat” in a nutrition label indicates how many calories are from FAT in the product out of the total calories mentioned.

Calories_From_Fat
Calories_From_Fat

General misconception in calories section is that people think that the “Calories from FAT” are additional calories apart from the “Calories” mentioned (i.e. 110 + 35 = 145 Calories). This is totally wrong. The fact is that the total calories in 1 serving is always 110. Out of the 110 calories, 35 calories come from FAT. This means that the remaining 75 (110-35 = 75) calories come from carbohydrates and protein.

Other misconception is that many think that the calories provided in the label is for the entire food packet. But care should be given to note the “Number of Servings” given just below the serving size.

General guideline for calories based on a 2000 calorie diet plan;
  1. 40 calories or below is considered low.
  2. 100 to 150 calories is considered moderate.
  3. 400 calories are more is considered high.

Percentage Daily Values:

The percentage daily value in a nutrition label indicates the percentage values of each nutrient in one serving based on a daily reference values per 2000 calorie diet.

For example, in the below nutrition label, the % DV “Total Fat” is mentioned as 6%. And “Saturated Fat” is mentioned as 10%. The daily reference value of “Total Fat” is 65 grams and “Saturated Fat” is 20 grams for a 2000 calorie intake. So, the “Total Fat” of 6% indicates 6% of 65 grams which is 3.9 grams. Similarly, the “Saturated Fat” of 10% indicates 10% of 20 grams which is 2 grams.

Percentage_Daily_Values
Percentage_Daily_Values

Remember that the % daily values are based on a 2000 Calorie diet. So it is advised to be aware of your daily calorie requirement in order to know if you need to take more or less of the nutrients mentioned in the label. Don’t worry if you are not aware of your daily calorie requirement. Click here to know your daily calorie requirement using BMR calculator.

The daily nutrition requirement reference values based on a 2000 calorie intake for adults and children of 4 or more years of age is given below.

Daily_Nutrition_Reference_Values_Per_2000_Calorie_Diet
Daily_Nutrition_Reference_Values_Per_2000_Calorie_Diet
Guide to % DV:
  1. 5% of DV or less is generally low.
  2. 5% of DV to 10% of DV is moderate.
  3. 20% of DV or more is generally high.
Nutrients without a % DV:

Note that Trans fat, Sugars and, Protein do not list a %DV on the Nutrition Facts label.

No_Percentage_Daily_Values
Nutrients_With_No_Percentage_Daily_Values

As per FDA,

  • Experts could not provide a reference value for trans fat nor any other information that FDA believes is sufficient to establish a Daily Value or %DV. It is recommended to limit these nutrient as much as possible as it might increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern for adults and children over 4 years of age.
  • No daily reference value has been established for sugars because no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day. Keep in mind, the sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label include naturally occurring sugars (like those in fruit and milk) as well as those added to a food or drink.

Nutrients:

Nutrient section in a food label provides the amount of key nutrients present in food per serving. The nutrients section can be further divided into 3 segments.

Segment 1: Nutrients to Limit:

Consuming too much of Fat, cholesterol, sodium & sugar may increase the risks of chronic diseases like heart problems, high blood pressure and some type of cancers. So utmost care should be given to limit these nutrients well below the daily requirements.

Nutrients_to_Limit
Nutrients_to_Limit
Segment 2: Nutrients to Get More:

The nutrition label can not only be used to cut down unhealthy nutrients, but can also be used to increase the healthy nutrients. Most people don’t get enough dietary fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium & Iron in their diet. These nutrients help improve health and reduce risk of some diseases.

Nutrients_To_Get_More
Nutrients_To_Get_More

For example,

  • Taking enough of calcium can help osteoporosis.
  • Eating more fiber can lead to a healthy bowel movement.
  • A diet rich in Vitamin A improves the vision and acts as antioxidant.
  • A diet rich in Vitamin C improves the immune system.
  • An Iron rich diet prevents anemia.

Hence it is recommended to increase the consumption of these nutrients.

Segment 3: Get enough:

Carbohydrates and protein are the key powerhouse of energy. Get enough of carbohydrates & protein but within your daily allowable limit. Taking too much or too less of these nutrients is not advisable.

Nutrients_To_Get_Enough
Nutrients_To_Get_Enough

Footnote:

If you look the nutrition label closely, you will observe a * mark next % daily values. This * mark refers to the footnote in the nutrition label (shown below) which tell you that the %DVs are based on a 2000 calorie diet. This footnote also gives the daily reference values for key nutrients based on 2000 and 2500 calorie diets. The footnote also guides you about upper and lower limits of certain nutrients. It is recommended to consume the total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium less than the reference values.

Foot_Note_Segment
Foot_Note_Segment

Note carefully, that the reference value of cholesterol and sodium remains same for both 2000 and 2500 calorie diets. So do not take these nutrients in excess even if your daily calorie requirement is more than 2000 calories.

Conclusion:

It is always a good practice to read the nutrition label and get the most out of your food package. Consuming certain nutrients with caution as specified by daily reference values can highly reduce the risks of certain chronic diseases and increased consumption of few other nutrients can greatly help improve your immune system and help prevent certain diseases.

So, next time when you purchase a food package, do read the nutrition label and choose the product wisely. If you liked my post, please provide your feedback below and do share this post with your friends.

8 Comments

  1. Gaylene

    Hi Mani,

    I always worry about those labels that say: “0” fat content, or labels that say: “natural”. And “sugar-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “low calories” either. However, thanks for the post on how to read the labels it was very helpful 🙂

    Reply
    • Mani

      Hi Gaylene,

      You are absolutely right. There is a lot of information hidden inside a nutrition label. Understanding the label and choosing a good product will definitely lead to a healthy lifestyle. Thanks for the feedback.

      Regards,
      Manivannan Y

      Reply
  2. kristine

    excellent explanation of the food label. I like to read this label and use it to not only check the info for that item but also to compare similar items to determine which one is best.

    Reply
    • Mani

      Hi Kristine,

      You are right..! Nutrition label helps you compare similar products and choose a healthy product. Thanks for the feedback.

      Regards,
      Manivannan Y

      Reply
  3. Anis Chity

    Hi Mani, I care so much about my healthy since I am a semi-professional soccer player I am on a diet.

    But when I eat out with my friends, a sandwich or a snack whatever, I really don’t care about those food labels.

    When I do I don’t really care about understanding them, this post is very useful Mani.

    Thanks for sharing and keep these great posts coming! 🙂

    Reply
    • Mani

      Hi Anis,

      Being a soccer player, you might need certain nutrients like carbohydrates in excess to produce instant energy. So It is very essential to read the food label to get most out of the food product.Thanks for the feedback.

      Regards,
      Mani Y

      Reply
  4. Graham

    Hi Mani, I never used to look at labels but I have started to check them lately as I had noticed I was beginning to gain some weight. It was a massive shock to me when I began reading them and it has really made me more conscious to check more items before I buy them. You are so right when it comes down to serving quantities. I used to go through whole packets of biscuits sometimes until I realised this. Now I just eat a couple instead and feel much better for doing it. Thanks for sharing this great information and keep up the great work.

    Reply
    • Mani

      Hi Graham,

      Thanks for the feedback. “Serving Size” and “Number of Servings” are a tricky details in a food label. Many tend to ignore this information and consume more saturated fat than the allowed daily reference values and hence becoming prone to chronic diseases.

      Regards,
      Mani Y

      Reply

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