By: Rebecca Heming, ’18, University Health Center Nutrition Peer Educator
Nutrition labels can be confusing to understand! There’s a lot of information, but also a lot of words thrown around that may not mean what you think they mean. It’s easy to feel daunted by the amount of information and choose to simply ignore it all. But don’t despair, you can learn to quickly and easily read nutrition labels once you know what to focus on.
- Pay attention to the first few ingredients. They’re listed by descending weight and make up the majority of the food.
- The calories and amount of each nutrient are listed per serving. If you eat more than one serving you’ll need to multiply accordingly. For example, if you ate a whole can of soup and the label indicates that there are 2 servings per can, you will need to double the amount of calories and each nutrient to get an accurate picture of what you ate. Keep in mind that the serving size listed does not mean that is the amount you “should” eat, it is just used as a unit of measurement so that the manufacturer can quantify the nutrients in their product. Often our portions contain several servings.
- Scan the nutrition label. Look for products with more vitamin A, K, & C, calcium, iron and fiber while containing less fat, cholesterol, and sodium. That being said, don’t let fat content necessarily turn you away from an item. Nuts and potato chips both have higher levels of fat, but nuts are a much healthier choice!
- Sugar content can be misleading. The sugar content is not separated into added sugar versus naturally occurring sugar. The US Dietary Guidelines encourage us to reduce added sugar, so look to see how high up on the ingredients list a form of sugar occurs to better judge the sugar content.
- Know some common terms. If you see the term “good source of,” this means the food provides 10% or more of the daily value for the nutrient. The term “high in” indicates that it provides at least 20% of the daily value for that nutrient.
- Understand what organic means. A food labeled as organic means it must be produced from at least 95% organic ingredients, while foods labeled as 100% organic must consist of only organic ingredients and processing aids. The term “made with organic” means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. Organic does not mean the food is any more nutritious, but it does mean there are not antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, bioengineering, et cetera present in the food.
- Gluten free does not mean healthier. Gluten free items can be highly processed and may put you at risk for nutritional deficiencies.
- Sea salt vs. regular salt. Sea salt has just as much sodium as regular salt and may not contain iodine, a critical micronutrient that our bodies cannot make.
- Look for 100% whole grain. Multigrain or made with whole grain does not necessarily mean whole grain, and whole grain does not necessarily mean 100% whole grain. So, look for 100% whole grain on the label. If whole grains appear first on the ingredients list, then you know it contains more whole grains than refined grains.
- The term “natural” is currently undefined and unregulated by the FDA. Natural generally means nothing artificial or synthetic is present in the food, but does not address pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, genetic modification, preservatives, irradiation, et cetera. A food labeled as natural does not mean it is healthier for you and should not be confused with organic.
If you’re not already, I challenge you to read at least one nutrition label this week!