If you’ve spent the better part of your adult life on one diet or another, then you probably don’t need food labels explained to you. For everyone else, the nutrition label on a packaged food item could seem about as comprehensible as a foreign language. With serving sizes, daily values, and practically unreadable ingredients to slog through, who can figure out if what you’re eating is actually healthy or not? In fact, everyone can read and comprehend food labels if they just make an effort to understand what they’re looking at and how it fits into the bigger picture. Here are a few tips to get you started on your path to reading nutrition information.
The first thing you need to know is that food labels are generally based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, the average amount that most adults should be consuming, according to the government (which regulates the content of food labels). This is mainly important to know because the percentages of daily values listed after some nutritional elements are based on this number. Next, it is vital to understand that the serving size listed at the top of the label is not always indicative of the total amount in the package, which is why it’s important to note. If you polish off a bag of chips without realizing that there were 10 servings, you may have just gone way over your daily limits. So make sure you check the quantity of the serving size (usually measured by volume or a number of pieces).
From there, you will see caloric values (total calories and calories from fat). Remember, these are only for a single serving. If you’re on a diet and planning your caloric intake for a day, this section of the label can help you decide what portion is acceptable to consume. However, there is a lot more to consider. It’s not only about how much you eat, but WHAT you eat. And this is where the rest of the label comes into play. Those who are concerned about diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol (amongst other things) need to pay attention to what follows. With listings for fat, carbs, sugars, sodium, and so on, you can easily see if you’re going overboard on the bad stuff, while the amount of protein and dietary fiber will give you the balance of nutrition (you’ll want more of the latter two and less of the former). With this knowledge, you can make better nutritional decisions.
Also listed are vitamins and minerals included in the food. If you are looking to avoid a daily supplemental vitamin, it is imperative that you get proper nutrients from your foods, and this section of the label can help you to ascertain that. Finally, you’ll see a list of ingredients. You should know that the ingredients are listed by content, so that those at the top are included in greater volume than those at the bottom of the list. For example, if high fructose corn syrup is the first ingredient, you probably want to leave that item on the shelf. This part of the label will also show you how many ingredients are organic, if you happen to be purchasing organic foods.
While the nutrition label can only give you so much information, what is important is that you know how to interpret it. If, for example, the majority of ingredients are chemicals that you can’t even pronounce, you can reasonably assume that there is very little natural food content. How you fit the information garnered from the food label into your overall diet is far more important than the individual facts, so learn to use food labels to your benefit and you’ll find that you enjoy a healthier and more comprehensive diet all around.