10 Facts You Should Know About Nutrition Labels

Photo by John Kuczala

Photo by John Kuczala

By Maureen Salamon

Have you ever read a food label and wondered what the heck it was trying to tell you? While designed to enlighten us about what we’re actually putting into our bodies, nutrition labels on packaged foods can also prompt confusion and head-scratching.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has attempted to make food labels even more informative, however. In 2016, the FDA announced revisions to the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods, adding a category for added sugars and reflecting recent scientific findings on the link between diet and health problems such as heart disease and obesity. Depending on their sales figures, food manufacturers must comply by January 2021 at the latest.

That said, we’re undoubtedly better equipped to decipher nutrition labels when we break down the categories and in some cases, read between the lines. Gleaned from the FDA and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, here are 10 key facts to understand about food labels, particularly the new version:

1. Nutrition Facts Labels can’t leave these items out:
What absolutely must be listed without fail?

  • Total fat

  • Saturated fat

  • Trans fat

  • Cholesterol

  • Sodium

  • Total carbohydrate

  • Dietary fiber

  • Sugars

  • Protein

  • Vitamin A

  • Vitamin C

  • Calcium

  • Iron

2. A “Serving Size” may be a lot less than what you’re eating:
Take a close look at the serving size and servings per container on the label. The amount of calories, fats and other nutrients listed is for one serving, but the designated serving size may be relatively small. Don’t assume the calories listed are for the whole package – instead, multiply it by the actual number of servings you’re eating to accurately reflect your intake. Super-sizing an item may translate into double or triple the stated calories.

3. “Calories from Fat” is no longer listed:
This line item has been replaced with several sub-categories, including total fat, saturated fat and trans fat. The change reflects current conventional wisdom that the type of fat we consume is more important than the total amount of fat. If a product is 100% fat, such as oil, then “calories from fat” will be the same number as “total calories.”

4. The “% Daily Value” listed is more accurate for men:
The Daily Value (or DV) tells us what percentage of each nutrient that product represents in our diet, but it’s based on an intake of 2,000 calories per day. Most women of normal weight eat less than that. So, if you notice a food has an 8% Daily Value for saturated fat, for instance, then there’s a good chance it actually represents more than 8% of your saturated fat intake for the day.

5. How high or low should you go in Daily Values?
Learning the percentage Daily Value for a specific nutrient is all well and good, but what proportions should we aim for? “Low” means 5% or less of your daily diet; aim for this in sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat. “High” means 20% or more; shoot for this in potassium, calcium, vitamins, fiber and iron.

6. Ingredients are listed in order from most to least:
The first ingredient listed on a food label is what it contains most of, and each successive ingredient represents that much less of the total product. This is important to note because undesirable ingredients, such as hydrogenated vegetable oil – which isn’t heart-healthy – should be near the bottom of the list, if present at all. Also, the longer the ingredient list is, the more likely the food is highly processed – another thing you want to avoid.

7. Certain nutrients don’t list a % Daily Value:
Food labels aren’t required to include a % DV for trans fat, sugars and protein. Why? The explanation varies by nutrient. For trans fat, there’s no safe level, since scientific research blames it for raising LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels, leading to higher heart disease risks. For protein, a % DV will only be listed if the product claims it’s “high” in protein or meant to be consumed by children under 4. For sugars, no FDA recommendations have been made for the total amount to consume each day. Obviously, the less, the better.

8.  Some nutrients have been switched out for others:
You’ll notice vitamin D and potassium listed on the label now, but not necessarily vitamins A and C. The FDA decided to highlight nutrients most Americans don’t consume enough of, in place of those we probably do.

9.  Sodium amounts matter:
Even if you don’t have high blood pressure or another medical condition impacted by salt consumption, pay close attention to the sodium content in packaged goods and aim for a daily total sodium intake of 2,300 mg or less. If you have high blood pressure, cut that number to 1,500 mg or less per day.

10. For those with allergies, good news:
If a packaged product contains any of the 8 most common food allergens – which include milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish and tree nuts – they have been required since 2006 to be listed on nutrition labels either in the ingredients list, in parentheses after an ingredient, or below the ingredient list.

Maureen Salamon is a widely published health and medical writer who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN.com, HealthDay, The Dallas Morning News and other major publications.