Reading Food Labels... Explained

When it comes to finding foods that are healthy for us, we can always go to look at one thing, the food label. The problem with this is most of us don’t always know exactly what we’re supposed to be looking for when we do start looking at it. Obviously, most of us start by looking at the calories and then work our way down to the fats, carbs, and protein content. However, there is a lot of other useful information that we can find when we look at food labels. Knowing what we need to be looking for, can be that next little step that will help push us over that hump that we’ve been stuck on.

Serving Sizes

When it comes to looking at food labels, there are two things that we need to take a look at. These are the servings per container, and the serving size. This is something that most people bypass when it comes to looking at the food label, yet this is one of the more important things. Sure, finding a box of mac and cheese that is only 230 calories is great, but what can get you is the serving size, and servings per container of that box. Because you might think you’re only eating 230 calories worth of mac and cheese when in reality you just ate about 800 calories of mac and cheese. What we need to keep in mind is when it comes to looking at serving sizes of products, the information that is found on the label is based off of the specified serving size and not the whole container itself. Another misconceived idea is that the serving size is based off of how much food is recommended or suggested. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case when it comes to serving sizes. The serving sizes that are found on food labels are solely based off of an amount that they believe individuals are typically thought to eat. So just because it says a serving size is ½ a cup, that doesn’t always mean that’s the amount of that product that you should eat. It could be more or it could be less based on your needs and goals. Finally, looking at how many servings per container will help us to know how many calories we are to consume if we do end up splurging a little and eating that whole box of mac and cheese.


Percent Daily Value

The percent daily value is something that we always see when we look at a food label, but we don’t always necessarily know what those numbers mean for us. The PDV are the numbers that we see as percentages over to the right side of the food labels. These numbers indicate how much one serving of that food item contributes towards the recommended daily value for that particular nutrient. This is the easiest way for us to see if that food item is particularly high or low in one of the listed nutrients. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that we choose products that provide 5% or less of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and products that have 20% or more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The reason that we want to look for those specific nutrients within that range is because anything less than 5% means that product is low in that nutrient and if it has a value of 20% or more than that product is high in that nutrient. One thing you might notice when you take a look at the PDV is that protein doesn’t have a number by it. This is because protein is a nutrient that we aren’t considered to be deficient in and therefore doesn’t require a PDV.


Total Calories and Macronutrients

Finally, after taking a look at the serving size and the percent daily values of the product we can take a look at the total number of calories, as well as the macronutrients that are contained in that product. Thankfully, this part has been made easier to find, since all food labels are now required to have an easier to read design. This makes it to where the number of calories is in a larger, bolder print at the top of the label so it is easier for us to find. When looking at the food label, you might notice that some of the labels have two columns instead of just the one that we see on most of them. What this dual column means is that that food product only contains one to three servings. So on the left side of the column we will see the calories and macronutrients per serving and on the right side of the column we will see the calories and macronutrients for the whole container. They are set up in this form, because food products like this are more likely to be consumed all in one sitting. So this takes out the hard work for you when it comes to calculating your macros.


Now that we know some of the different components of the food label, it will make them easier to understand next time we’re at a grocery store and take a look at them. Remember to start off by looking at the serving sizes and servings per container, then moving to the percent daily values, and finally ending with looking at the total calories and macronutrient break down. Looking at the items in that order will help set you up for success and help you eliminate unknowingly consuming extra calories.


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