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How to Read Nutrition Labels

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Never judge a book by its cover—but always judge a food by its nutrition label.

Because (as we’ll see) the fancy packaging and carefully-chosen words don’t. But, if you can read a nutrition label properly, you’re empowered to choose the right foods for your goals, your macros, and your body.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of making sure food in the US is safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. But that doesn’t mean labels are always clear or easy to read. So, if nutrition labels overwhelm you or freak you out, have no fear! You’re not alone, and we’re here to help. Grab your favorite snack (that fits your macros, of course) and let’s take a trip down label lane.

 

Information Label Basics

The first things you’ll see under nutrition facts are the “serving size” and “servings per container.” Serving size refers to the amount of food an average person would eat at one sitting. The servings per container refer to exactly that: how many “average one-sitting servings” are in the package.

Scan down a line and you’ll see the “calories per serving.” Per serving is key here. It means you have to consider how many servings you’re really eating. If the package says 100 calories but you’ve eaten twice the suggested amount, you should be logging 200 calories.

Sometimes there’s a discrepancy between the macros and the calories—the math doesn’t seem to add up, exactly. That’s because the FDA has set rules that allow for a certain amount of rounding. For instance, a package may say it has 1 gram of carbs (4 calories), but the label shows “0 calories,” which is allowed because anything less than 5 calories can be called calorie-free. Below 50 calories, the label must round to the nearest increment of 5, while above 50 calories the label will round to the nearest 10.

And take all of this with a figurative grain of salt: Nutrition labeling (usually) does its best to report the macros and calories you’d find in that food, at that serving size—but it isn’t perfect. In fact, the FDA allows for labeling errors of up to 20%! That sounds insane, but those errors average out over time, and don’t really make a difference. So, don’t stress about this! Just keep tracking.

Continuing down the label, you’ll find the amounts of specific nutrients in the product, including vitamins and minerals. These are listed as a “percent daily value” (% DV). Each serving has a % DV for each of the major micronutrients, based on a standardized 2,000-calorie diet. Depending on your current macros and calorie allotment, your % DV may be different than what’s listed. The footnote below the nutrients section sometimes shares the DV’s for a 2,500-calorie diet as well.

A high daily value is considered 20% or more and a low daily value is 5% or less than what’s recommended here.

Lastly, there’s the ingredient list. All the food’s ingredients are listed here, in descending order by weight. For instance, a soda is mostly carbonated water, so that will come first on the list. The smallest (lightest) ingredient will appear last on the list—such as caffeine—with everything else arranged in between.

This is also where you can find any important allergy information, like whether the food was processed near tree nuts, or contains phenylalanine. For people with allergies or serious diet restrictions, this is the most essential information on the package.

 

PDP & the Health Halo

When you’re looking at food packaging, the part you’re likely to see first is known as the “principal display panel,” or PDP. Here you’ll see the brand name, logo, quantity of food, and any words like “100% Juice.”

Companies can make all sorts of claims on the PDP, but those claims are regulated. Health claims (like “this food will help prevent that disease”) or structure/function claims (like “calcium builds strong bones”) are pretty cut-and-dry: the FDA allows them if they’re scientifically true, and research is constantly updated to make sure they are. But the waters get murky when you throw in words like “all natural” and “healthy.”

This becomes a marketer’s playground, and brands will use these words to draw in consumers, making their product seem like the healthier, better choice.

This “health halo” effect can be harmless, but it can also be highly misleading. For instance, a food marketed as “organic” often makes consumers think it has fewer calories, can be eaten in greater quantities, and doesn’t require as much exercise to “work off” [1]. The use of nutrient-irrelevant words (like “organic” or “all natural”) can trick buyers into thinking that food has better nutrient values (like fewer calories or more vitamins). Don’t fall for this marketing trick! If you want to buy organic or cage-free, go for it—but don’t think that means it’s better for your diet.

Food labels are more than just a fancy wrapper; they’re loaded with info to help you make smarter nutrition choices. Now, next time you’re in the grocery store reaching for your favorite snacks, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting.

 

 

REFERENCES
1. Schuldt JP & Schwartz N. The “organic” path to obesity? Organic claims influence calorie judgments and exercise recommendations. Judgment and Decision Making (2010). 5(3): 144-150.
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