Decoding Food Labels

usda_foodlabel

Reading food labels can sometimes feel like trying to understand a foreign language. It seems like every fad diet tells us to pay attention to a different nutrient–one week, you’re told to restrict calories and limit carbohydrates; and the next week, fat and sugar are off limits.

If you’re struggling to understand food labels, you’re not alone. These guidelines may help you the next time you’re trying to decide between two snacks.

  1. Start with the serving size. Serving sizes are standardized to help you better compare foods. The serving size influences the number of calories and other nutrient amounts listed on the food label. Before having a snack, ask yourself, “how many servings am I consuming?”
  2. Consider the calories. Despite the heightened attention on calories, they are not the be-all and end-all of nutrition. Calories are units of energy, and your body needs energy to survive. In order to understand the caloric value of a food, you must first understand the serving size. This tool will help you understand exactly how much you should be eating based on your individual needs.
  3. Which nutrients to limit. The first nutrients listed on a food label are fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Too much of these nutrients can increase your risk of certain chronic diseases. Keep in mind that while you should limit the amount of these nutrients that you consume, they’re still necessary for a healthy lifestyle. For example, avocados, nuts, and fatty fish are all sources of “good fat” and are better choices than pre-packaged snack foods.
  4. Which nutrients to get enough of. Other nutrients to pay attention to are fiber, calcium, iron, and Vitamins A and C. According to the FDA, eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some health conditions.
  5. Look at the carbohydrates. “Carbs” is often a buzzword when it comes to dieting. “Low carb” has become synonymous with “healthy.” However, that’s not always the case. The key is to make sure that most of the carbohydrates you eat are “good” or “complex” carbohydrates like sweet potato, whole grain pasta, and beans as opposed to “bad” or “simple” carbohydrates like candies, pastries, and white rice or bread. Simple carbohydrates are higher in sugar and lower in fiber, and they contain little real value for your body.
  6. Sugar. Sugar can be naturally occurring (like in fruits) or added artificially (like in desserts or cereals). If you’re watching your sugar intake, make sure that added sugars aren’t listed as one of the first ingredients. Sugar can be disguised as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, and maple syrup.
  7. Anything else? Of course! Protein. Protein is found in meat, eggs, beans, and nuts. Foods that contain protein are known to keep you fuller longer, so if they’re low in sugar and fat, they can be a great snack!

Above all, it’s important to practice balance. Every nutrient is important to nourish your body and keep it working the way it’s supposed to. Try these tips the next time you go to the grocery store! Don’t be fooled by common phrases like “all natural,” or “low carb,” because now you have the tools to know better.

Hayley Weise,MBS, RD, LD, SNA

Haley Weise is the Director of Field Nutrition Services at Chartwells School Dining Services.  She works with schools across the Southeastern United States to developed healthy school menus and to provide students with healthy food options

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