A registered dietitian decodes every line of the nutrition facts panel on your favorite packaged foods.
Ever wonder if that box of granola, loaf of bread, or the frozen pizza you turn to in a pinch is actually good for you? The front of the box may make lots of promises (All natural! Made with whole grains!). But the best way to know is to take a look at the nutrition facts panel on the back of the package.
Here you'll find all the details about the nutrients and ingredients in your packaged foods. It's a good habit to get into. Research shows that people who read nutrition labels when grocery shopping typically have more nutritious diets.
Whether you're new to nutrition labels, or a back-of-package pro, you may have noticed the label seems a bit different. It recently got a much-needed facelift by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal agency in charge of determining what goes on food labels.
The new look was designed to make it easier for consumers to read the most important information. It also includes some new nutrition information to help you make healthy choices.
Here’s a rundown of each line on the new and improved nutrition facts label so you can better understand what’s in the foods you’re dropping into the grocery cart.
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The first thing you’ll see under the “Nutrition Facts” title is the servings per container and the serving size. For instance, this could state: 6 servings per container. Serving size 2/3 cup (55 g).
The serving size is the amount of the food that the nutrition information is based on. It’s not the amount that you have to eat. You may eat more or less depending on your needs.
Just keep in mind that if you stray from the posted serving size, you’ll need to do a little math to figure out how many calories and nutrients you’re getting.
The new label features the calories in a bigger, bolder font. This is one of the most important pieces of information for most people. It's the amount of energy (calories) you'll get from one serving of the food or drink.
But remember that there is a lot more to your overall nutrition than counting calories. A package of pistachios might have more calories per serving than a package of candy. But the pistachios are a more nutritious choice.
Percent Daily Value (%DV)
In the rest of the label, you'll see a list of nutrients and the amount of each, in grams (g) or milligrams (mg), in one serving of the food or drink. You'll also see a percentage with each of the nutrients. This is the percent daily value (%DV). It's the amount of the nutrient in one serving relative to the amount that is recommended in a day.
For example, let's say a food has 4g of saturated fat per serving. Four grams might not seem like a lot. But the %DV is 20 percent. That means that you are going to get 20 percent of the recommended saturated fat for a day in one serving of this food.
Keep in mind, %DVs are based on average recommendations for someone who eats 2,000 calories a day. They may not reflect what you personally need. But they can give you an idea of what foods and drinks are high or low in certain nutrients.
In general, 5% DV or less is considered low, and 20% DV or more is high. This can help you make better choices based on what nutrients you want more of (e.g., fiber, potassium) and what you may want less of (e.g., saturated fat, sodium).
Fat is one of the three macronutrients (the others are carbohydrates and protein). These are nutrients that provide calories and that we eat the most of in a day.
"Total fat" is the total grams of fat in a serving of the food or drink. Below that, the fat content is broken down further into saturated fat and trans fat (some labels may include unsaturated fats, too). While it can be tempting to fixate on the total grams of fat, not all fats are created equal.
Generally, you want to eat less saturated fat, and no trans fat. These fats can increase your risk of heart disease. Trans fats are actually banned from food products. So most products should have 0 grams of trans fat.
For heart healthy choices, compare labels and look for products with less saturated fat.
Recommended reading: Should You Ditch Low-Fat Foods for Good?
"Cholesterol" on a food label is different from the cholesterol in your blood that your doctor measures. You may have heard in the past that you need to limit cholesterol in your diet. But dietary cholesterol does not affect your blood cholesterol as much as we used to think. Still, the recommended daily value for cholesterol is less than 300 milligrams (mg) a day.
Recommended reading: 8 Things You Don’t Know About Cholesterol—but Need To
Sodium is a mineral found in salt. Too much of it is linked to high blood pressure. And processed, packaged foods are one of the top sources of sodium in American's diets. So you'll want to check this number on your favorite packaged foods.
It's a good idea to compare products and choose those with less milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving. The recommended daily value for sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day.
If you have high blood pressure or heart disease, you may want to eat even less each day. Major health organizations including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend less than 1,500 mg per day.
Recommended reading: Sodium: The SilverSneakers Guide for Older Adults
Next on the list is another macronutrient, carbohydrates (or carbs). Just like fats, there are different types of carbs. The first number is the total carbohydrates. Then below that, the amount is broken down into dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars.
Fiber is an important type of carb that many older adults are not getting enough of. It’s found in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Fiber has many benefits including:
- Improves gut health and keeps you regular
- Lowers cholesterol
- Keeps you feeling fuller longer, which can help you maintain a healthy weight
- Lowers blood sugar
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that older adults get at least 22 grams (for women) or 28 grams (for men) of fiber every day. It's a good idea to compare labels and drop those products with more fiber into your shopping cart.
Recommended reading: 18 Foods With More Fiber Than Oatmeal
Sugar is another type of carb. "Total sugars" on the label includes natural sugar and sugars that are added during processing.
There's no recommended daily value recommended for total sugars. But the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting less than 10 percent of your calories in a day from added sugars. (That's about 50 grams if you eat 2,000 calories a day.)
That’s because eating too much added sugar is linked to health problems like weight gain, high blood sugar, and heart disease. To help Americans eat less, the FDA now requires food companies to list the grams of added sugar in a food or drink. Now, under “total sugars,” you’ll also see “Includes XX g Added Sugars.”
By checking the label, you may be surprised to learn how much sugar is added to some of your favorite foods. Flavored yogurts, breakfast cereals, and even jarred sauces can have a lot of added sugars. It's wise to compare products and select those with fewer (or zero) grams of added sugar.
Recommended reading: Added Sugar: 4 Hidden Dangers Every Older Adult Needs to Know
Protein is the last macronutrient on the list. It's an important nutrient for older adults. It can help you maintain your muscle mass and keep you moving. The current recommendations call for at least 46 grams of protein a day for older women and 56 grams for older men.
Recommended reading: How Much Protein Should I Eat Each Day?
The last things on the label are a few key micronutrients. Micronutrients are essential vitamins and minerals that we need in small amounts every day. The ones listed in the nutrition label are:
- Vitamin D
Many Americans do not get enough of these four micronutrients. That's why the FDA requires food companies to list them on the nutrition facts label. These are often just listed with the %DV. Foods and drinks with 5 percent or more of the daily value are considered a good source of that nutrient.
Putting It All Together
The nutrition facts label packs a lot of info into a small space. It might be overwhelming to consider every nutrient in every food product when you're grocery shopping.
Instead, you can key in on certain nutrients to help you make healthier choices. Por ejemplo:
- Pay attention to added sugars when shopping for things like yogurt or cereal. These foods can be sugar bombs. But you can choose lower sugar options by comparing labels.
- Watch out for sodium in canned goods, frozen or instant meals, and snack foods. You can also check the front of the package for labels like "reduced sodium" or "no salt added."
- If you have diabetes or are watching your blood sugar, check labels for carbs and dietary fiber. Foods with less total carbs and more fiber can help you keep blood sugars in check.
Nutrition info is just one piece of the puzzle that can help you make healthy choices every day.
See our sources:
Reading food labels linked to better diet: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Nutrition recommendations for older adults: 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Sodium recommendations: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine & American Heart Association
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