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Nutrition Facts

What is the label telling you?
What is the label telling you?
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Are you one of the many, many consumers who looks at the label on a food item and simply sees gibberish or one who picks out the one nutrient you understand somewhat and base eating a food off that information only? If so, you’re not alone. Whether you’re on a specific diet or not, being able to read and comprehend a nutrition label is a right that everyone has and should used to your advantage. While some people only look at one ingredient or nutrient on the label, commonly sugar, calories, and trans fat (which is actually banned in some countries, foods, and restaurant dishes), it’s much more beneficial to be able to decode the entire contents, because after all, you are what you eat, right?

Let’s start with the top.

· Serving size

o This indicates a portion of the product that contains the amount of nutrients you see on the label. Therefore, if the serving size on a bag of bread says “one slice”, that means you can scan down the nutrition facts and see exactly how much you’re eating with one serving. If you choose to make a sandwich with two slices of bread, you would then simply multiply the numbers by two, as you’re now consuming two servings. Sometimes doing the adding and multiplying gets tricky because the serving size may involve conversions, but that is an easy problem to solve when you get to know your kitchen utensils and measurements.

· % Daily Value (%DV)

o This is just a tool to utilize when determining the amount of a certain nutrient is in the serving size compared to the entire day’s suggestion, generally based off an individual trying to consume about 2000 calories per day. For children, the elderly, and people with special diet needs, this value may not be accurate or reasonable, but it is a great guideline to look to for the average adult when making dietary decisions. If the percentage is above 20%, the amount per serving is a high value for that particular food or drink. If it is below 5%, that is considered a low value. Again, this percentage is merely a marker for targeted consumers averaging about 2000 calories per day, and may be manipulated as needs/changes are necessary.

· Total Fat and Cholesterol

o Total fat usually includes the trans fat and saturated fat contents as well. As in the case of products like skim milk and low fat cheese, this amount on the label is not 100% accurate all the time, because there always will be traces of fat in items like these, although they may be very small and hard to detect. Saturated fat is usually found in animal sources, including meat, poultry and milk. Both trans fat and saturated fat have been noted to increases LDL-cholesterol in the blood, or the “bad” cholesterol doctors warn about when it comes to heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and numerous other diseases. While this is scary business, fat is needed in particular amounts and in different forms for good reason. There are many types of fat, and classifying it bad and ruling it out altogether is not beneficial nor recommended. Cholesterol is found solely in animal products, which means that cutting out fruits and vegetables won’t solve any problems if that doctor tells you to watch your levels, so good try guys!

· Sodium

o Sodium has been studied for several decades and its use in food through different forms has transformed the food industry tremendously. Shifting to low-sodium alternatives when at a high risk for heart disease may be recommended, however every individual is different and has different needs when it comes to sodium. For most Americans, the sodium requirement for adequate nutrition is not nearly as high as the typical dietary intake amount, so the excessive consumption often leads to hypertension and related diseases.

· Potassium

o Like sodium, potassium is an essential electrolyte which is found not only in bananas, but also in berries, grapes, spinach, lettuce, grapefruits and so many other foods. This mineral is important in maintaining homeostasis in the body and in protecting nerves and muscles.

· Carbohydrates

o For whatever reason, carbs have long been a controversial nutrient. Listed by “total carbohydrates” is the amount per serving, but this can even be broken down further. This includes fiber, added sugars, and sugar alcohols. All of these affect blood glucose levels, which is why this part of the label is particularly well-known by the diabetic community and with people who are dieting on certain programs. Keep in mind that food manufacturers may list “Net carbs” to list only the carbohydrates not including sugar alcohols and fiber, to make the product appear “healthier” or “better” for a particular audience.

· Protein

o Listed here is another very important macronutrient that supplies energy to the body and helps repair muscles, skin, nails and organs as needed on a daily basis. It is a great idea to determine a target goal for how much protein should be eaten daily for maintenance of a healthy mind, body, and lean muscle mass. Protein is especially important in the event of sickness or injury, as it helps in the recovery process.

· Vitamins and Minerals

o Towards the bottom of the label, a few major micronutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin C may be listed. Many people rely on supplements or multivitamins to reach their daily goals for these, however pill form and dietary form are digested differently and sometimes one works better than the other in being absorbed by the body. Regardless, having a diet rich in vitamins and minerals has proven to be beneficial to all.

· The footnote

o At the very bottom of the nutrition facts, a footnote is listed with general guidelines usually for people on a 2000 calorie diet or a 2500 calorie diet. These are listed purely as an example and are intended to simplify the process of reading a label.

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