How Understanding Nutrition Labels Can Help You Make Healthier Choices

Today’s consumer is smarter and more health conscious than ever before. Food companies know this and purposely market their products to appeal to this new smarter demographic, using buzzwords like “organic” and “whole-grain” to dupe consumers into thinking they are making a healthy food choice. Using and understanding a package’s nutrition label can help make you a smarter consumer by allowing you to see exactly what goes into that all-natural bag of kale chips or vegan granola bar, turning the tables on food marketing. Below we go through some tips on what to look for on a nutrition label so that you can make healthy and informed decisions while grocery shopping.

1. Serving Information:

The first (and maybe most important) section of the nutrition label is reserved for information about the serving size. Here, it is important to take a look at the number of servings in the package or container, and then the amount that actually constitutes a single serving. Many people make the mistake of assuming that the nutrition information reflects the entire contents of the package, instead of a predetermined serving size. It may be helpful to measure or weigh out the actual serving size listed on the nutrition label to get an idea of exactly how much of a product you’re eating. As we move into the lower sections of the nutrition label, it is important to remember that all of the nutrition information is based on a single serving, not an entire package or container.  

2. Calories:

The next section of the nutrition label contains information about the calories in a single serving. If we look back to the above nutrition label, we can see that there are 110 calories in a 1 cup serving. Let’s assume that there are four 1 cup servings in our packaged food item. If we were to consume – say 2 cups, we would have just consumed 220 calories. This is why it is so important to understand the amount that constitutes a single serving; it allows us to get a more accurate picture of our caloric intake throughout the day.

3. Nutrients:

The final section of the label contains all of the nutrient information, as well as the percent daily value (or % DV). Here, we can see the amount of a specific nutrient in our food item, as well as how much a single nutrient contributes to our daily nutrient intake from all food sources. For instance, let’s take a look at the amount of potassium contained in a single serving of our food item. We see that our item contains 450mg of potassium, which constitutes 10% of our daily value of potassium. What this means is that a single serving of our food item contains 10%, or 1/10th of the amount of potassium recommended for the entire day. This number is important because it can allow you to get a ballpark estimate of the amount of nutrients you are consuming, and potentially exceeding per day.

4. Percent Daily Value:

A good rule of thumb to follow is that 5% DV or less of a nutrient is considered a small amount, while 15% DV or more is considered a high amount. This is an important metric to remember as it can allow you to quickly judge the nutrient content of a food product. For instance, a single serving of our food item contains 22% DV of sugar. Using our percentage rule, we know that this product is high in sugar, something that we should try to limit in our diets. If we assume that our food item contains four, 1 cup servings, eating the entire package would account for an entire days’ worth of sugar. This demonstrates why it is important to understand how much of a food item constitutes a single serving. The percentage rule can be used for all of the nutrients, including fats, protein, and carbohydrates (which include sugars and fibre).

When looking at the nutrient information section of the label, try to get less: sugars, sodium, saturated & trans fats and instead try to get more: fibre, protein, and calcium. This is a quick and easy way to make healthier food choices.

Understanding the nitty gritty behind a nutrition label can help you make healthier choices and see through clever food marketing. In a world where every food package contains buzzwords such as “organic” or “low-fat”, it’s important to remember to turn the box over and read the label. Doing so allows us to make healthier, informed decisions about the food we buy and prepare for ourselves and our loved ones.

References:

FDA (2020). How to understand and use the nutrition facts label. U.S. food and drug administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label.

Health Canada (2019, January 17). Government of Canada. Canada.ca. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/nutrition-facts-tables.html.

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