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How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label





The Nutrition Facts Label is intended to offer insight into the dietary components of a food item. But you may find it difficult to understand the meaning behind the various numbers, words, ingredients, or abbreviations. This essential part of food labeling and packaging, regulated by the FDA under the authority of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, is an easy way to practice healthy eating once you understand what it all means!


Serving Size

A serving size is a recommended quantity of a given food item. Surprisingly, serving sizes are not based on recommended values. Rather, they are a representation of what people actually consume. The standards used to determine serving sizes are based on surveys of the population. This means that the serving size listed at the top of your food label is an estimation based on the general population- a great guideline that may need adjustments depending on your size, age, gender, activity level, current health status, and hunger/fullness cues.


%DV

%DV is the "percent daily value," a representation of how much this individual item contributes to a standardized daily allowance. For example, it's recommended to have no more than 2,300 mg/day of sodium. If the label says "7%" under the title % Daily Value for sodium, then one serving of this food item is 7% of the suggested daily amount. That means you have 93% of your daily value left, or 2,139 mg of sodium. Keeping track of the %DV may help you ensure adequacy and stray from excess.


Sodium

Speaking of sodium, there are a few tricks to deciphering a low sodium to a high sodium food. As a general guide: 5% DV or less per serving is considered a low sodium food. 20% DV or more is considered a high sodium food.


Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Unsaturated Fat, Trans Fat

Total fat includes saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats.


Saturated fat is a type of dietary fat, solid at room temperature and most often found in butter, coconut oil, cheese, and red meat. Consuming too much saturated fat may heighten risk for heart disease, as it increases your LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells. But too much can cause fatty deposits in your arteries, inhibiting blood flow.


Unsaturated fat, another type of dietary fat, is commonly found in plant-based foods like avocados, olive oil, peanut butter, nuts and seeds, and vegetable oils. Fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel, as well. These are considered "healthy fats" and are linked to a lower risk of heart disease, providing you with stronger cell membranes, reduced inflammation, and lower LDL cholesterol levels.


Trans Fat can be naturally occurring or artificial. Naturally occurring trans fats are formed in the gut of some animals and foods from these animals may contain small amounts. Artificial trans fats ("trans fatty acids") are created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil, creating a solid, more shelf stable fat. Look for the term: "partially hydrogenated oil"on your food label (and stay away!). These oils are actually deemed no longer Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS). It can raise your LDL and lower your HDL cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes.


Total Carbohydrates, Dietary Fiber, and Added Sugars

You may have noticed that the amount of dietary fiber and sugar on a food label don't always add up to the total carbohydrates. It should though, right? Not quite. Though most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules and absorbed, dietary fiber travels to your colon and, depending on the type of fiber, will aid in constipation, lower LDL cholesterol levels, or even act as a prebiotic. Because of this, dietary fiber can be subtracted from the total number of carbohydrates.

Regarding sugar, another form of carbohydrates, it's important to pay attention to where it came from. If the label reads, "Total Sugars 12 g, Added Sugars 10 g," it means that there are only 2 grams of naturally occurring sugar and 10 grams of added sugar. Ideally, look for items that have 0 grams of added sugars.

Just be weary that the FDA's added sugar label has a loophole- naturally occurring sugars that have been heavily processed by the manufacturer may still be labeled as "natural" even though they can have harmful effects on our health like added sugars do. When in doubt, try to choose products with limited total sugar.


The Nutrition Facts Label can be misleading and overwhelming if you don't know how to read it. But with the right information on how to debunk and decode it, you'll be set for success!






Sources:


1. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Food Labeling & Nutrition.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition.

2. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Sodium in Your Diet.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/sodium-your-diet.

3. Commissioner, Office of the. “Food Serving Sizes Get a Reality Check.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/food-serving-sizes-get-reality-check.

4. Felman, Adam. “Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats: Which Is More Healthful?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 28 Jan. 2020, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321655.

5. Marty, et al. “Natural and Added Sugars: Two Sides of the Same Coin.” Science in the News, 5 Oct. 2015, sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/natural-and-added-sugars-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/.

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As always, you provide clear and easy to understand (and remember) information. Thank you for sifting through the details and providing the basic facts.

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