While reading the nutritional label isn’t always a challenge, actually understanding it can be. See, while the FDA requires this information to be displayed, you need to know exactly what you’re looking at and for to make the best food choices for you. While a general rule of thumb is that the best food for you doesn’t have a nutritional label (e.g. fresh fruit and vegetables), it’s also not realistic.
Here’s how to understand what the nutritional labels are trying to tell you and what to look out for.
The Top of the Label: Serving Size
This is the first area you need to pay attention to – don’t let your eyes skim over this section and jump to the nutritional breakdown, as this is where food and drink companies may try to deceive you.
Read the serving size and the servings per container. Sometimes, food companies will say there are multiple servings in a product we all know someone will consume in one go, and if you don’t watch out for it you may consume far more calories, sugar, fat, and carbohydrates than you thought.
Also keep in mind the serving size suggestions, as sometimes the portion suggestion is extremely small (for example, a single cup of cooked macaroni and cheese doesn’t exactly make a meal).
Next Check Calories
The next section tells you about the number of calories in the product per serving. This is relatively self-explanatory, so just make sure you’ve checked the serving size and then look at the calories. It will also tell you the number of calories from fat, but generally, this isn’t as important as the actual breakdown of what types of fat are in the product. Often, fat isn’t the enemy, sugar is, so the nutritional breakdown is more important than this metric.
Next, you’ll see a breakdown of the major macronutrients in the product:
Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat
Total Carbohydrate, Dietary Fiber, Sugars
You’ll also see a percentage of the daily value recommended, but this is a very general guide and will be most helpful when you move down to the next section (vitamins and minerals).
First, look at the fat in the product. Look at the overall fat number; that’s the total number of fat in the product, good and bad, then at the breakdown of saturated fat and trans fats. You want both of these numbers to be as low as possible, as the type of fat not listed (unsaturated fat) is relatively good for you.
Next, you’ll see cholesterol in the product, and look at the % daily value to see a guide of how good or bad for you the product is in this aspect. It’s unlikely that the product will be high in this but be healthy in every other way, so a lot of cholesterol should be a red flag, but otherwise don’t overthink it.
Next is sodium, which means how much salt is in it. The lower the salt the better, in general. High sodium is often a sign that it is highly processed.
Carbohydrates are something you should pay a lot of attention to, especially in the breakdown. Look at the overall number of carbohydrates and then at the dietary fiber and sugars. You want to see a high level of dietary fiber if the product is “known” as a carbohydrate (e.g. cereals, bread, pasta, etc) and as few sugars as possible. You can keep your fiber high by choosing whole grains. Sugar has been linked to numerous health problems, from diabetes to cancer, so it is always in your best interest to minimize this.
Finally, protein. Simply, the higher the protein the better.
Vitamins and Minerals
Next, you’ll see the vitamins and minerals. Just like with protein, the higher the numbers, the better. Generally, 5% or less is low, and 20% is high. You won’t ever overdose on these vitamins and minerals from eating food normally, so the more the better.
At the bottom of the label, you’ll see a very general guide based on what is recommended for men and women. If you want to ensure you’re eating the right amount for you, an online calculator like IIFYM.com will help you calculate your calorific and macronutrient needs.