Nutrition Facts: How to Read a Food Label

illustration by Kate Koenig

Alyssa Simon, Nutrition Columnist

illustration by Kate Koenig

Food labels are a great indication of how nutritious a food or beverage is. Food labels are found mostly on processed foods, as well as all non-alcoholic bottled or canned beverages, and pre-prepared fruits and vegetables. Food labels can be a great way to tell how healthy a food or beverage is or not, but with so many numbers and nutrients, it can be difficult to know what you are reading!

Serving size: The best place to start when reading a food label is the serving size. This is based on the amount of food most people eat at one time, and guides the entire rest of the food label. If you eat more or less than the serving size, the rest of the numbers will be affected as well.

Calories: Many people look at the calories or fat first on a label because they may think these numbers matter most. Calories are simply a measure of energy and are determined by your height, weight, age and activity level, as well as injuries.
Calories from fat can help you determine the percentage of calories that come from fat. Try to limit this number to less than 30 percent of your calories consumed per day! To find the percentage of calories that come from fat, divide calories from fat by calories.

Fat: Total fat includes all the grams of fat found in the product. Typically, saturated fat and trans fats are what you see, but you may also see monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA). Saturated fat and trans fats raise your risk of heart disease, while MUFAs and PUFAs may help lower your risk. Try to limit your daily intake of saturated and trans fats as much as possible.

Cholesterol: There is research that has found cholesterol found in foods may not raise blood cholesterol in everyone, but since the jury is still out, it is best to take precautions and limit your cholesterol intake to less than 300mg daily, if your blood cholesterol levels are healthy. If they are not healthy, talk to your doctor about a plan to lower them.

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates consist of fiber, sugar and starch, and provide your body with energy. Many people fear carbohydrates (and fat), but these nutrients are necessary for proper health. About half of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates; preferably fruits, veggies and whole grains.

Protein: Protein is a macronutrient (along with carbohydrates and fat), and helps repair muscle fibers as well as providing you with the sensation of satiety and keeps you feeling full longer! Typically, American’s overestimate the
amount of protein they need daily. This is based on factors including your weight and activity factor, as well as injury.

Micronutrients: Vitamins and minerals are macronutrients, and the ones found on a food label are the nutrients considered important to most people’s health.

Reading a food label is a great way to determine how nutritious a food is, but the healthiest foods are typically the ones without a label—fresh fruits and vegetables!

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