Reading the nutrition facts panel can be confusing and a lot of people don’t know where to begin! Understanding the label and how to use it for your personal needs can make a big difference to your health. Here are 5 of my favorite tips for reading the nutrition facts panel:
1. Start with the serving size – It is important to remember that all of the information on the nutrition facts panel corresponds to the serving size. Check the serving size and servings per container to get an idea for how much you are actually eating. For example, if the serving size for a breakfast cereal is 1/2 cup and you eat 1 cup, then the values for all of the nutrients (calories, carbohydrates, sugar, etc.) must be doubled. Certain items can be trickier than others: soup, bottled beverages, and candy containers may actually contain two servings for a portion that could easily be consumed in one sitting!
2. Don’t fear fat – It is important to take a close look at the fat category on the nutrition facts panel; not because we need to avoid fat completely, but to be aware of the types of fat we are eating. For this tip, I will use almonds as an example. The fat content of almonds is high, about 13 grams for a 1-ounce serving. When you take a look at the label however, saturated and trans fats may be the only types of fat listed under the total. There is 1 gram of saturated fat in this serving of almonds, which means 12 grams of fat are unaccounted for. It is safe to assume that the remaining fat is either poly- or monounsaturated fats (or a combination of both), which are a healthier form of fat.
3. Use the 5% and 20% rule – This is a great tip to use when you are comparing products on the shelf. The % Daily Value (%DV) is always listed on the right hand side of the nutrition facts panel and is meant to be a guide for nutrient consumption based on a 2,000 calorie diet. These numbers can be difficult to adjust based on your personal calorie consumption (which may differ from 2,000 each day), but don’t worry – for this tip you only need to remember the numbers 5 and 20! If you see a nutrient with a %DV of 5% or lower, that food is considered to be low in that nutrient. On the other hand, if a nutrient has a number of 20% or higher, it is considered high in that nutrient. One of the most common nutrients of concern that I encounter with nutrition coaching clients is sodium. When comparing canned soup or frozen foods for example, you would want to choose the product with the lower %DV of sodium – or closest to 5% (or lower!) as possible.
4. Choose foods with few ingredients – After you have scanned the nutrient information on the nutrition facts panel, you will find the ingredient list. It is a good rule of thumb to look for foods with a short ingredient list. If you think about the produce department, there aren’t many fresh fruits or vegetables with nutrition labels on them – an apple is just an apple, and broccoli is just broccoli, nothing else! When shopping for items found in the center aisles of the store, think peanut butter or salad dressings; you want to select choices with minimal ingredients that you recognize and can pronounce.
What ingredients do you expect to find in peanut butter? Check out these two varieties of peanut butter below. Which one would you rather but into your body?
5. Pay attention to the order of ingredients – While you scan the ingredient list, pay attention to the order in which they are listed. Ingredients are listed in descending order or predominance (which is determined by weight). The ingredient that weighs the most in that item is listed first. This is something you may want to inspect closely in the cereal or granola bar aisle. As a rule of thumb, if sugar is one of the first ingredients listed, you may want to consider putting it back on the shelf.
I hope you find these tips helpful! The next time you go to the grocery store, I challenge you to take a second look at the nutrition label on some of your go-to items. Can you find a healthier alternative? 😉