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Quick - when was the last time you checked out the nutrition label on the back of a packaged food you bought? Don’t worry, a lot of us don’t!
Knowing how to read the nutrition facts label on the back of packaged food will help you get a better understanding of what you're eating. We’ll cover what you need to know when it comes to portion size versus serving size, how much sugar, salt, and nutrients are in your foods, and what to look out for when it comes to your health.
Portion size vs. serving size
Let’s break down the difference between portion size and serving size.
Serving Size: the amount of food listed on a food product’s nutrition facts label. This is typically a recommendation for what one serving of the food product is. Be aware - companies may adjust the serving size to be less than you might typically eat in order to make a food seem healthier than it is at first glance. Recommendations are simply that - recommendations.
Portion Size: how much food you choose to eat at one time, this could be in your own kitchen as you are serving yourself or while dining out. Portion sizes are under our control in how much we eat. It can be easy to eat more than one serving of a food without realizing it.
When looking at the nutrition facts label, there are a few things to be aware of that can help you quickly make healthier choices.
Serving Size: Look at the serving size of the food product first.
Total Calories per Serving: This tells you how many calories you'd eat if you had exactly one serving. You can find the total calories in the entire package by multiplying the "calories per serving" by the "number of servings per container." In the example image above that would be 230 multiplied by 8, or 1,840.
% Daily Value (%DV): The %DV indicates how much of the nutrient in one serving of the food contributes to your daily recommended intake. This amount is based on the standard intake of 2,000 calories, so your %DV may actually be slightly different based on your calorie needs but can still give you a general idea. Generally, a %DV of 5% or less is considered low, while 20% or more is considered high.
Pay Attention to Nutrients: Check out how many grams of total sugars and added sugars, sodium, and fat (especially saturated fats) and make sure the foods you are buying have lower amounts of all of these nutrients.
Here are some of the key nutrients to look for when you’re reading a nutrition facts label for a food you’re thinking about buying.
The American Heart Association recommends that you limit your total added sugar intake for the day to 36 grams for men and 25 grams for women. On packaged foods, you can find the amount of added sugar on the nutrition facts label. Try to choose foods that have little to no added sugars.
The American Heart Association recommends getting 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day from your food. On the nutrition facts label, the fiber content is listed as dietary fiber, under the total carbohydrate section. If you’re comparing foods, choose the one that lists a higher dietary fiber amount per serving.
Pay attention to both the total fat content and the types of fat (saturated and trans fats). Aim for foods with lower amounts of saturated and trans fats, as these can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 mg a day, and actually aiming for 1,500 mg a day. Sodium levels tend to be higher in packaged foods with a long shelf-life, so be sure to take a look at the amount of sodium on the nutrition facts label. There are also some rules around terms used on packaging. You might see:
Salt/Sodium-Free – Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving
Very Low Sodium – 35 milligrams or less per serving
Low Sodium – 140 milligrams or less per serving
Reduced Sodium – At least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the usual sodium level
Light in Sodium or Lightly Salted– At least 50 percent less sodium than the regular product
No-Salt-Added or Unsalted – No salt is added during processing – but these products may not be salt/sodium-free unless stated
When in doubt, always double check the actual amount listed on the label.
Checking the ingredients
You’ll also find an ingredient list on the food label. All of the ingredients in the product will be in this section and they are listed in order of weight, with the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last.
If you look at the ingredients list and see that the first ingredient is sugar, you can assume that the product is probably high in added sugars. Companies like to be tricky here too, and will sometimes add different ingredients to get the same level of sweetness while spreading out the sugar sources in the ingredients list. For example, some different names for sugars include cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, or molasses.
Aim for choosing products that have more whole foods listed in the ingredients list, rather than more heavily processed ingredients. For more information about ingredient lists and what to look for, chat with your dietitian or Brook Health Coach.
Understanding nutrition labels empowers you to make healthier food choices. Whether it's managing your calorie intake, keeping an eye on added sugars, or choosing foods with more fiber and less unhealthy fats, when you make an informed choice, you're taking significant steps toward a healthier lifestyle. Next time you're shopping, take a moment to read those labels—it's a small effort that can lead to big improvements in your health. Your body will thank you for it!