There's so much to look at on food packages, both front and back. But the most important info you'll find is in the little black and white Nutrition Facts panel. So how exactly should we use this panel? What should and shouldn't we look for? While the food label can be an incredibly helpful tool in selecting products that fit your goals, needs, and lifestyle, it can also be challenging to navigate. So let's give a break down of the things you should keep an eye on and what you can ignore when you flip a food package around.
Start with a classic: the calorie countThe most helpful piece of information on the food label is always going to be the number of calories. The number of calories we need each day will vary by individual based on sex, body size, age, and activity levels. For most women, this number should be at least 1,600 calories per day and for men it should be at least 2,000. Looking at the calorie count first will help you to determine if this food item will help you reach your daily calorie needs.
The calorie count will tell you if this food is appropriate for a snack, part of a meal, or for a meal itself based on your daily needs. For foods like sauces or side dishes, use this number to consider how the product will impact the total calories in a meal. But how many calories should be in a meal? A good estimate is about 400-500 with one or two snacks in between meals to make up the difference between your daily requirement.
Scan the label for four more key nutrientsProtein
This important macronutrient doesn't need to be in every food you eat, but if a packaged food is going to be an entire meal or snack, you’ll want to have it in there. Aim for 20g of protein per meal and 10g for a snack.
Sugar and/or added sugar
Added sugars are starting to be reflected on Nutrition Facts panels, and you'll see this everywhere by January 2021. And this is important, because we should focus on limiting our intake to less than 20 g per day—which is not an easy feat considering how much hidden sugar is in processed products! Sugar is also naturally found in many foods like fruit and dairy, but these aren't as concerning because of the overall nutritional structure of those foods.
Definitely pay attention to this number when eating any packaged or processed food. This number is particularly important depending on the size of the meal (i.e. whether it's a whole meal or part of a meal like a sauce or dressing). Avoid foods which have over 20% of your daily value (DV) of sodium in a serving. Sodium is consistently higher in packaged foods compared to fresh ones, as it aids in prolonging their shelf life.
As these are the types of fat that can have a negative impact on heart health, aim to limit these as much as possible. The total fat number includes saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fat. While saturated and trans fats are required to be on the food label, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are not. Follow the logic for sodium when it comes to saturated fat: no more than 20% of your DV in a serving.
Certain items on the label really aren't worth your attentionCholesterol
Dietary cholesterol has a very minimal impact on our blood cholesterol levels, so eating more does not necessarily result in having higher levels of cholesterol in our bodies. To improve heart health, focus should be placed on the saturated fat content of foods rather than cholesterol, as saturated fat actually has more impact on raising blood cholesterol levels.
Foods such as shrimp and eggs contain a high amount of cholesterol they are low in saturated fats. But fun fact: neither of them have negative effects on cholesterol levels and are actually beneficial in improving cholesterol levels.
If you have a family history of high cholesterol and/or heart disease, talk to your doctor about how dietary cholesterol plays a role. You may be genetically predisposed to high cholesterol levels.
Don’t spend much, if any, time worrying about this line on the label. This number appeared back in a time where our culture vilified eating fat with the low-fat diet craze. This brought about a significant increase in the sugar content of foods, opening the door to the diabetes epidemic. Fat plays an important role in many bodily functions including hormone production, nutrient absorption, and cell growth among other things. Just be sure to aim for a balance of fat, carbohydrates, and protein in a meal and throughout your day.
This line is also an artifact from a different time in our culture when food companies began to utilize trans fats in foods, claiming they were a healthier alternative to saturated fats. These fats are rarely found in nature and largely produced in a laboratory. And unfortunately, they have been found to in fact be a worse option for heart health than saturated fats. In 2007, the USDA passed legislation banning the use of trans fats in packaged goods, and now all packaged foods must contain less than 0.5g per serving. Very few companies use these trans fats, so this number is almost always 0, making this line item a little obsolete.
Serving size matters more than you may think
A summary of how to use a nutrition facts label
- The nutrition facts label can be a helpful tool in making informed decisions about the foods you’re eating
- Consider calorie amount when deciding how much of your daily intake you want the food to comprise
- Look at protein, added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat when making decisions about whether to eat or drink something
- Cholesterol, fat calories, and trans fat don't need much attention
- Look at the big picture! Use the information on the Nutrition Facts panel to see how foods fit into your entire day of eating
- If you are still uncertain about this information, the FDA has a great and very detailed resource available for the public on how to understand and use the food label here.
- While the best foods to eat won’t have a food label (i.e. fresh ones), we recognize that processed foods are a major part of our daily intake, so being an educated consumer is key to meeting your health goals!