Healthy Eating 101: Your Guide to the Nutrition Facts Label

Starting in 1994, food makers have been required by law to include a standard Nutrition Facts panel on every box, can, bag and package they sell. Since then, there have been a few tweaks to the label (for example, trans fat was added in 2006). But the first real update to the Nutrition Facts happened this year, and you'll see the new version on your grocer's shelves beginning in 2018.

Nutrition Facts offers shoppers key information about what's in their food, from levels of fat and sugar to percentages of beneficial nutrients. You don't have to be watching your weight or eating a restricted diet to pay attention to the Nutrition Facts graphic—in fact, it's smart for everyone to read food labels.

Food labels—both the Nutrition Facts panel and the list of ingredients—give us essential information about what we eat. The label tells us how many calories are in a serving, and that's where most people stop reading. It also alerts us to added ingredients we should be on the lookout for, like high-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars, artificial flavoring and extra sodium. The label also lets us find foods with benefits like protein, fiber and vitamins.

Here's a guide to reading the Nutrition Facts label and other graphics on food packaging, plus a look at some changes you'll see coming in about two years.

Nutrition Facts Basics

Serving Size and Calories

Start at the top: serving size and calories. Pay attention to the serving size: it may be smaller than the entire package. By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not what they should eat. Here's the biggest change in the Nutrition Facts guide starting in 2018: How much people eat and drink has changed since the rules were written back in the early 90s. That means serving sizes on the labels are changing—for example, a serving of soda is shifting from 8 oz. to 12 oz. People don't really drink just part of that 12-oz. bottle of soda, they drink the whole thing.

When serving sizes increase, calories do too. So we'll no longer be able to trick ourselves into thinking we're drinking 100 calories of cola (labeled for an 8-oz. serving) when we're actually drinking 140 in that full 12-oz. bottle. 

Total Fats

Particularly pay attention to metrics for saturated fat and trans fat, which you should minimize or eliminate. Choose food with no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per serving and avoid trans fat altogether. The new label will continue to include total, saturated and trans fats, but will eliminate the calories from fat; according to the FDA, the type of fat is more helpful to know than the calories from fat. 

Sodium

This indicates how much sodium (salt) has been added to the food during preparation and processing. Food manufacturers add surprising amounts of sodium; in fact, prepared food is the top source of sodium in our diets—not the salt we sprinkle on at the table. When buying canned vegetables, for example, pick the low- or no-salt versions. You can season your dishes as you cook to suit your taste, and you'll likely add less salt than the manufacturer would. Keep an eye out for excess sodium in bread, frozen dinners and soups. Choose foods with no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Total Carbs

Here you'll find two important pieces of information: dietary fiber, which is beneficial in lowering cholesterol, boosts digestion and helps you stay fuller longer. The added sugars number tells you how many grams of sugar have been added to the product during processing.

Your goal? Maximize fiber and minimize added sugars. Aim for 25–30 grams of fiber per day. Men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day; women no more than 6 teaspoons. Watch for added sugar in unexpected places, like bottled salad dressing, pasta sauce and other prepared foods. Sugar equals calories, no matter its source—keep in mind that each gram of sugar (naturally occurring or added) contains 4 calories, so if a product has 15 grams of total sugar it contains 60 calories from sugar alone.

P
rotein

Protein supports bones, muscles and brain function; it's also one of three sources of calories in food (along with fat and sugar). Men and women of different ages have different dietary needs for protein (see Choose My Plate for specifics). Protein comes not just from meat, poultry and fish, but also from beans, peas, eggs, nuts and seeds.

Nutrients

Use the Nutrition Facts panel to make sure you're getting enough vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in your diet.

As a guide, if you want to consume less of a nutrient such as saturated fat or sodium, choose foods with a low DV (Daily Value) of 5% or less. If you want to consume more of a nutrient such as fiber, seek foods with a higher DV of 20% or more.

More Changes in 2018

The new Nutrition Facts label will spotlight added sugars in grams and as percent Daily Value. This will let you know how much sugar was added during processing vs. what naturally occurs in the food. Check the ingredients list to see what kind of sugar was added. 

Specialized Icons

In addition to nutrition data, you may find other icons or labels on food packaging:

  • Heart-Check: Supported by the American Heart Association, this symbol lets you know that items meet heart-healthy guidelines for cholesterol, fat, sodium and nutrients.
  • Whole Grain Stamp: Indicates products that contain at least a half serving (8 grams) of whole grains.
  • Certified Gluten-Free logo from the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) or the logo from the Celiac Sprue Association: Products with these certifications contain less than five parts per million (ppm) of gluten (this threshhold is more stringent than the FDA's requirement below).
  • Gluten-Free label: Products must meet FDA standards to carry this designation. A labeled product may be inherently gluten-free (it does not contain wheat, rye, barley or related grains like triticale). If it does contain one of those grains (or an ingredient derived from them, like wheat starch), it must be processed to remove gluten and may contain no more than 20 ppm of gluten.

It's true: We are what we eat. Empower yourself and make great choices about the foods you buy. Become a dedicated label-reader!

Bryn Mooth is the author of the Findlay Market Cookbook, the editor of Edible Ohio Valley  magazine, and she also publishes a website called writes4food.com. She loves cooking tasty and uncomplicated dishes, cultivating a small vegetable garden and shopping at the Tristate area's many local farmers markets. Saturday mornings, you'll find Bryn at Findlay Market bright and early, doing much of her grocery shopping for the week. She's pleased to be partnering with Healthspirations to share her recipes, how-tos and information about eating healthfully in Cincinnati!