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How to Read Nutrition Labels and Potential Impacts on your Health

Written by 
Jennifer Co
Article at a glance
  • With so many types of food and beverages out there to choose from, how do you decide which one is best for you? To learn more about why nutrition labels are important, read this section.

  • Reading nutrition labels can be quite confusing, especially since they don’t indicate what the values mean. To learn more about how to read nutrition facts, read this section.

  • Food is an integral part of life, and it plays a very important role in our health. To learn more about the impacts of food nutrition on your health, read this section.

How to read nutrition labels and potential impacts on your health Oak Street Health

You are what you eat,” the old adage goes — but how true is this? As you walk down the aisles of your favorite grocery store, it’s nearly impossible not to notice that a majority of the packages you see have one thing in common: a black and white Nutrition Facts label. The goal of these labels is to encourage us to make healthier food choices. Learning how to read food labels for healthy eating can guide you in managing your health, which often starts with the food that you eat. This can also help you avoid poor nutrition — one of the main risk factors of long-term (chronic) illnesses.

What are nutrition labels?

A nutrition label, also called a food label, is a table that lists the nutrient content of a specific food product. The information that’s listed on the table is based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories. It’s important to remember that this value is an estimate of your daily calorie needs, and doesn’t apply to everyone. Your recommended calorie intake depends on a variety of factors such as your age, gender, height, weight, and level of physical activity. Determining the exact number of calories you need to consume per day requires a lot of calculations, but you can get a rough estimate using a calorie counter.

Why are food labels important?

Food labels are important because they can guide you on which type of food or drink to buy. They are a valuable source of information and can be especially useful in maintaining a healthy diet. These labels make it easier to compare similar products and different brands of the same type of food, which can help you make informed decisions and healthier eating choices.

Where can I find food labels?

Food labels can be found on almost all consumable packaged products. They are structured in a table format with the words Nutrition Facts” at the top, printed in bold black letters. Up until the late 1980s, food labels were not required except on products that claimed to have nutritional benefits, and on those fortified with specific vitamins, minerals, or protein. But since the approval and signing of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990, food packages are now required to include detailed nutritional information about the product (such as serving size, calories, and fat), in an effort to help consumers choose healthier food — and for companies to offer more nutritious options.

How to read food labels

The nutrition facts label consists of different sections which are specific to the product it’s on. At the very bottom of each nutrition label is a footnote that explains what the percent daily value means and the daily calorie intake it’s based on. 

Serving information

The serving information can be found directly below Nutrition Facts.” It tells you how many servings there are in a single package, as well as the serving size. The serving size is usually listed in cups or pieces followed by grams (g) or milliliters (ml) enclosed in parentheses and is the amount of food or drink per serving. Remember that the serving size is based on how much of the product a person typically eats or drinks in one sitting, and not the recommended amount that you should eat or drink. Also, keep in mind that all of the other nutrition facts listed below the serving information are based on only one serving. For example, if the serving information lists 2 servings per container, and a serving size of 1 cup (227g), if you eat or drink 1 cup, that’s 1 serving (or half of the package). If you eat or drink 2 cups, that’s 2 servings (or the whole package). Consuming 2 servings would mean doubling the calories and nutrients listed on the label.

Calories

Below the serving information is the number of calories you get with each serving. For example, for a product with 2 servings per container, a serving size of 1 cup, and 200 calories per serving, consuming the whole package (2 cups) means consuming 400 calories. A calorie is a measure of the energy that gets released from the food and beverages you consume. The more calories a certain food has, the more energy your body gets. But more calories are not necessarily better for you, and may not keep you fuller. If the number of calories you consume is more than what you need, your body turns these extra calories into fat. This is an important thing to consider, especially when buying low-fat or fat-free food.

Nutrients

The nutrients section takes up the majority of the food label. It contains a list of nutrients that can be useful when considering your specific dietary needs. Even though they’re labeled as nutrients, not everything that’s listed in this section is necessarily good — ingredients like saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar are generally associated with unwanted health effects. Consuming too much saturated fat, sodium, and sugar are all tied to inflammation in the body, and can increase your risk of certain diseases such as high blood pressure. On the other hand, there are other nutrients listed that Americans usually don’t get enough of. These include dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Dietary fiber has many health benefits, such as lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels, increasing the frequency of your bowel movements, and reducing your overall calorie intake. Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium also have many benefits, such as decreasing your risk of osteoporosis, anemia, and hypertension, respectively.

Percent daily value

The percent daily value (%DV) can be seen listed next to the nutrients. It corresponds to the amount of a nutrient per serving that contributes to your total daily diet. For example, if you see a total fat %DV of 12%, it means that the fat in one serving of that product is 12% of the total fat you should consume in a day based on a 2,000-calorie diet. You can use the %DV as a guide to determine if a particular food or drink is high or low in nutrients. In general, a %DV of 5 or less is considered low, and a %DV of 20 or more is considered high. The FDA recommends choosing foods that have a high %DV of dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium, and have a low %DV of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. This can include low-fat dairy products, whole-grain bread, beans, and seafood.

Others (product dates, ingredient list)

Although not included in the nutrition facts table, most products also contain product dates and an ingredient list. Product dates indicate the last date by which the product can be sold (“sell by date”) or when the quality of the product starts declining (“use by” or best if used by”). The ingredient list shows the ingredients used in making the product, which are listed in descending order by weight (i.e., the heaviest ingredient is listed first, and the lightest ingredient is listed last). So if the first ingredient listed is sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, for example, you know a product is primarily made from sugar.

Of course, some of the healthiest foods don’t carry a food label at all. Fruits and vegetables are often sold unpackaged, so their nutrients aren’t listed. But it’s a safe bet to include these in your diet for a variety of benefits, including vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and for their low calorie count.

Variations

Sometimes, the format of the nutrition facts label can look different. If a specific item contains more than 1 serving but it can be consumed in one sitting (e.g., bag of pretzels, pint of ice cream), the food label will have 2 columns. The 1st column will have information for just 1 serving, while the 2nd column will have information for the whole container.

The impact of food nutrition on your health

Eating a healthy diet not only helps you live longer, but also reduces your risk of certain diseases. It’s estimated that 19% of American children aged 2-19 years old, and 40% of American adults, are obese. That means that a person’s body weight is at least 20% higher than it should be in regard to their age, height, and gender. Obesity increases a person’s risk of having heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancers. Americans on average also consume more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily, far above the recommended amount of less than 2,300 mg, which also increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. In order to prevent disease and promote health, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) update and release the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. The most current edition is for 2020-2025, and provides you with information on healthy eating patterns for every stage of your life. 

Nutrition labels can serve as an excellent guide for healthy eating. They allow you to make informed decisions about the food that you buy, so that you can better manage your health through what you eat and drink. Because nutrition plays a big role in preventing certain diseases, understanding food labels and using them to plan your diet can help you lead a healthier life. 

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