For a long time, I was that person awkwardly standing in the middle of a supermarket aisle staring at the myriad of cereals wondering which was right for me. But the reality is the Nutrition Facts label on the back of each box provides me with all the information I need to choose the cereal that best fits my diet. I have found that many of my clients choose one section of the food label such as calories or total fat, and they base their food choices off that number. But it’s important to understand the whole label and realize that it’s a wonderful tool you can use to investigate exactly what each product contains and which product is the best choice. Remember, real, whole foods like fruits and vegetables are always the best bet. But when it comes to convenience foods, the food label and especially the ingredient list is the perfect guide to help you make better choices.
Knowing how to read food labels is especially important if you have health conditions, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and need to follow a special diet. It also makes it easier to compare similar foods to see which is healthier.
The more practice you get reading food labels, the better you can become in using them as a tool to plan your healthy, balanced diet.
According to Kristen Frie, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, the new label can help you make healthier, informed choices in three key ways.
Limiting added sugars. While the old label just offered a total “sugars” number, the new label calls out “added sugars” as well. That’s because nutrition experts like Frie are less concerned about the natural sugars we consume in the form of fruits, vegetables and dairy products. It’s the added sugars — often listed on ingredients labels as healthy-sounding agave nectar, honey, concentrated fruit juice or brown rice syrup, in addition to table sugar (sucrose) — that need to be limited.
The American Heart Association recommends adults eat no more than six to nine teaspoons of added sugar a day, but Americans actually consume much more — about 17 teaspoons a day. Frie hopes the new label will help people reduce their added sugar intake.
Limiting unhealthy fats. In the ’90s, when the original label debuted, low-fat diets were all the rage. But research has shown that good nutrition is less about the amount of fat you eat than the type of fat, so the “calories from fat” line has been deleted.
The new label continues to help you monitor your intake of unhealthy fats by listing specific amounts for both saturated fat (found in such foods as fatty meats, poultry skin and butter) and trans fat (vegetable shortening, fried foods and stick margarine, for example).
Getting enough essential nutrients. While the old label encouraged you to consume vitamins A and C by calling those out on the label, those lines have been deleted — turns out few Americans today have an A or C deficiency.
Instead, surveys show that many people are now coming up short on vitamin D and potassium. The new label lists both the actual amounts of those important nutrients
Use the label to support your personal dietary needs — choose foods that contain more of the nutrients you want to get more of and less of nutrients you may want to limit.
More often, choose foods that are:
- Higher in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium.
- Lower in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
- Pay close attention to serving sizes.
- Products labeled “light,” or “lite,” must have a third fewer calories or half the fat of the foods with which they are compared. “Light” can also mean that salt has been reduced by half.
- Look for foods with lower levels of saturated fats.
- The sodium amount tells you how much salt is in the food.
- Look for products that have more fiber and less sugar.
- Vitamins and minerals help your body function properly.
- Calcium is important for bones and teeth.
- Use the “percentage of daily value” section as a guide for daily planning of servings.
- The number of calories a person needs each day depends on many factors, including amount of exercise.