Nutritious foods are essential to good health. People who eat wholesome diets generally live longer and encounter less serious health problems than their counterparts. Furthermore, nutritious foods support growth and development and provide energy. Thus, it’s essential to make informed decisions on how to “fuel” one’s diet. Food labels are designed to share nutritional information. Not only do they educate the public on food content, but they also help consumers make better choices. In recent years, food labels have been simplified and redesigned by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be straightforward and readable. Bold print is one such improvement which enables people to easily identify key parts of nutritional labels. However, reading food labels can sometimes still be tricky. Here are some worthwhile points:
- Serving sizes on labels refer to the amount that people typically eat or drink. Per the FDA, “Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams (g).” Also listed on the label is the number of total servings per container. It’s important to note that serving size is NOT a recommendation of how much to eat or drink. Should you eat twice as much as recommended, it doubles the calories, cholesterol, fat, and nutrients you’ve consumed.
- Calories offer a measure of how much energy you get from a single serving size. Calories listed on a package correlate to a single serving. For example, if the serving size is one cup, and the entire package contains four cups, the calories shown apply only to the one cup. Remember that the number of calories you consume increases with the number of portions you eat. Pretend that one cup is 100 calories. If you eat all four cups, you will have consumed 400 calories.
- Fat content is also listed on the label. A small amount of fat is an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet. Fat helps the body absorb important vitamins and is essential to give the body energy and support cell function. However, some types are healthier than others. Saturated fats, for example, can raise bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and can put people at risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other health problems. Thus, it’s important to limit this type of fat in one’s diet. Trans fats should also be limited in most diets as well.
- The % of Daily Value (%DV) that appears on food labels refers to amounts people need every day as part of a total healthy diet. Note that Percent Daily Values are often based on a 2,000-calorie diet (see footnote on food label) and your Daily Value may be higher or lower depending on individual requirements. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises the following general rule to determine if a food is high or low in what the average person needs: 5% or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low. 20% of more of a nutrient per serving is considered high. From these values, folks can make informed decisions about what they are consuming by gauging which combinations of food are needed to meet daily nutritional requirements, as well as understand what should be limited or avoided. For more information on % DV, visit the FDA website at www.fda.gov. Here you’ll also find materials for consumers and educators on the latest nutrition facts label.
- Cholesterol, sugar, and salt content also appear on food labels. The human body makes cholesterol however it is also found in food. The numbers on labels reflect the latter, the dietary cholesterol per food serving. Generally, high-cholesterol foods are considered unhealthy. Consuming these foods may pose problems for people with significantly elevated cholesterol levels and known heart disease. Remember that cholesterol numbers on labels reflect a single portion size, and if one eats more than recommended, the amount of cholesterol consumed also increases. Large amounts of sodium and added sugars are also associated with adverse health effects. FDA dietary guidelines call for American adults to intake less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. However, individuals should check with their doctors to ascertain what amount is right for them. Labels that list “total sugar” also show added sugars, differentiating it from naturally occurring. Identifying amounts of sodium and added sugar and limiting them to safe consumable amounts is recommended.
- Dietary fiber, also called roughage or bulk, is a type of carbohydrate found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. There are two main types that people consume, soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel that gets broken down in the large intestines. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and passes through the gastrointestinal tract intact and is thus not a source of calories. Fiber is a necessary part of a healthy human diet and promotes intestinal regularity. It can also reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. In some cases, the type of fiber may be broken down on food labels, but it is not required. Fiber content is generally listed underneath carbohydrates on a food label.
- Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium are commonly required on food labels. Those nutrients, which some Americans are deficient in, are a necessary and important part of a healthy diet. The daily value for nutrients is updated by the FDA based on scientific information. Note that Vitamin A and C are no longer required on food labels since deficiencies in such are considered rare today. However, they may be voluntarily offered.
Nutrition labels are extremely beneficial; however, it is ultimately a personal responsibility to know what one should be consuming (or not consuming) and to exercise control. As nutrition requirements can change, an annual visit to a doctor or qualified nutritionist to discuss dietary requirements is recommended. Of note, every five years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts out a diagram to reflect updated dietary recommendations. MyPlate, the newer official symbol of the five food groups that replaced the traditional pyramid shape, helps folks build healthy eating habits via an interactive app. For more information on what should be on your plate, visit https://www.MyPlate.gov