A Complete Guide To Reading Food Labels
Have you ever seen people in food stores looking at food packages and wondered why are they reading the labels? When you follow a diet, or when you simply want to start shopping for healthier food items, food labels come in great help. They can be confusing at first if you are not sure how to read and understand them. But once you learn the basic steps, you will be able to get all the nutritional information needed from them.
Obesity is on the rise, which indicates that people are consuming more calories than the body actually needs, exceeding the normal energy requirements. Understanding food labels, you will know what nutrients are good for improving health, but you will also know what items you should avoid due to the high amounts of added salt or added sugars. There are strict requirements stating that all the nutritional information must be included on the packaging, including information about allergies and food additives, so that people can safely choose what to eat and what not to eat. Food labels are a great way for improving health and preventing any risks of dietary-related diseases.
What is a Food Label?
Nowadays, with a large variety of food items in the markets, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep our energy requirements on track. With obesity and diabetes on the rise, it is essential to understand food labeling, to prevent the risks of diseases and to promote a better-for-you lifestyle. Food labels are nutritional information panels displayed on food packages that inform you about the nutritional content of the food. They provide information regarding the amount of saturated fats, salt, added sugar, and calories, and depending on the food item, they could also include information about proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins, and minerals.
Food labels can also give information regarding the manufacturer’s details, weights and measures of the product, “best before” date, directions for use and storage, country of origin, and also the allergens and additives that the food contains. Fresh fruits and vegetables, or baked goods that you buy from the local bakery, usually have nutritional information displayed near the food products. So even though they don’t come in a package, they can still provide all the information that you need.
Nutrition Information Panel
We all have a favorite food that we often purchase, but have you ever looked at its’ food label to see what it actually contains? It can be a specific sauce, sweets, chocolate, a type of canned vegetable or fruit, cereal or protein bars, juices, etc. The first thing we see when we look at the food packaging is the nutrition information panel. It looks like a chart with two columns, in which you can see different nutrients and their quantity per serving, per one cup, or per 100 g. The nutrition panel usually contains information about the 7 main nutrients: energy (kcal), protein, fats, saturated fats, carbs, added sugars, and sodium.
When buying food, a good idea would be to compare brands of the same food product. For example, a brand of tomato sauce can have higher amounts of sugar and calories per serving than another brand of the same food product.
However, there are some food products that do not necessarily need a food label as they are either single ingredient foods like water, vinegar, fruits, vegetables, or they come in very small packages like herbs, spices, tea, and coffee. Learning about the nutritional value of food items can help you make better decisions regarding your diet, focusing not only on the number of calories, but mostly on the amount of high-quality nutrients that provide the best energy.
Use By and Best Before
While knowing the nutritional content of foods is important, checking the “use-by date” is also very important. This doesn’t mean that the food will be toxic for people that consume it, but it might lose its’ properties, taste and smell, if it passes the expiration date. There are many ways that this date can be seen on the food package:
Best before date
This date implies that the food has the best flavor and quality if it is eaten before the “best before” date. It doesn’t mean that the food will spoil, but it might not have the same taste and the same properties. The most common foods that have a “best before” date are canned goods, crackers, cookies, and spices.
- Sell-by date
The sell-by date is mostly for refrigerated products like milk, yogurt, cream, eggs, cheese. The “sell-by” date means that some foods are good for another week after the expiration date, and some can be good to use even after five weeks.
- Use-by date
Foods that have a “use-by” date on the packaging, are usually foods that should not be consumed after the expiration date, for safety reasons. Foods like these include meat, fish, and some dairy products.
Serving size is usually placed above the nutritional panel, and it is used to show the nutrient amount per each serving size. It is important to pay attention to the serving sizes, which show the amount of food that people should typically eat at one meal. These can be measured in cups, pieces, or grams, and they can help you calculate how much of each nutrient you are about to eat.
There are also cases when the nutrition information panel will show the values of nutrients for a very small quantity, and not for the amount eaten in one sitting, which can make the product seem healthy. For example, when we want to eat a bowl of cereals with milk, we take a regular bowl, we fill it up with cereals and then we add milk. However, on the nutritional panel, the serving size is usually ¾ cup, which is a third of a regular cereal bowl. The number of calories per serving is 110, but if we eat the cereals without measuring them, we might eat three times more than a serving size amount of calories. So we carry on eating, thinking that we only ate a serving size of 110 kcal, but instead we ate around 330 kcal. This is why it is very important to always measure the serving sizes, as it is easy to inaccurately measure how much we actually consumed.
What Nutrients Are on the Ingredient List?
One of the first things that we look for on a food label is calories, which can be found under the name of kilojoules (kj) or kilocalories (kcal). The energy value is very important for our health, but it should mainly come from nutrient-dense foods. Food panels also provide information about fat, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugars, protein, and salt. There are two types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are found in animal-based foods like meat and dairy, and if they’re consumed in high amounts, they can cause issues with cholesterol levels and with the health of the heart. Saturated fats consumption should be reduced to under 13 grams per day. Added sugars can also cause a variety of health issues including obesity and diabetes. The best thing we can do is to limit the amount of nutrients that our body doesn’t need and increase the amount of nutrients that provide optimal energy and health.
If the food product contains more than 5 % of other nutrients, such as fiber, potassium, calcium or iron, they can also appear on the nutritional panel. All ingredients are listed in descending order, from the largest amount to at least 5%. First on the list are usually calories, as they have the highest value. Even compound ingredients should appear on the food panel. Only if the ingredients make up less than 5% of the food, there’s no need to add them to the ingredient panel.
How Do We Use the % Daily Value?
Some nutritional information panels can also show a percentage of the ingredients or nutrients from a specific food. This detail is important when we compare different products, to see which one suits our diet more. The % daily value represents the amount of nutrients in a serving of food.
The daily values are daily recommendations of how much of a nutrient you should eat each day. They can be helpful when we try to determine if a serving size is high or low in nutrients and if it can contribute to your daily nutrient goals. When we look at the food label and see that a certain food contains 35g of sugar per serving, this means that 100 g of the food product contains 35% sugar. If a nutrient has a daily value of less than 5% per serving, then it is considered low, and if the nutrient has a daily value of more than 20%, then it is considered high. Nutritionists recommend choosing foods with a high % daily value of dietary fiber, vitamin D, Calcium, Iron and Potassium, and with a low % daily value of saturated fats, salt, and added sugars.
Nutrition and Guidelines
Now that we know how to properly read and understand food labels, there is only one more detail that we should know. For every food label there are specific guidelines that need to be followed and respected by the manufacturers. As a manufacturer, you are not allowed to add unreal statements on the food packaging.
The food products have to meet the specific guidelines when it comes to making various claims. If a product doesn’t have added sugars, you will see on the label the statement “no added sugars”. If a food product has a low level of salt or fat, the food label can say “reduced fat or salt” on the label. Some food labels can be tricky but true, and make people think that the product is healthy. For example, a food label can say “80% fat free”, which means that the product contains 20% of fat which is a high amount for someone who wants to reduce the fat intake.
How to Know if a Food is High or Low in Fat, Sugar, Salt and Saturated Fats
Even though healthy food choices are a challenge for the majority of the population, understanding food labels can be a first step in promoting better food choices. There is a direct link between dietary choices and chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases, so choosing foods that have a low content of harmful nutrients, can be the best step taken in the prevention of health risks. Here are the main dietary recommendations regarding nutrient intake:
- Fats: high content of fat means more than 17.5 per serving size (100 g) and low means less than 3 g per serving size
- Sugars: high sugar levels mean more than 22.5 per serving size, and low levels mean less than 5 g per serving size
- Salt: high salt levels mean more than 1.5 g per serving size, and low levels mean more than 0.3 g per serving size
If you are in search of low-carb, better-for-you snacks, you can find a great variety of keto treats on our website. Some of the best snack options that won’t hinder your glucose levels include:
Reading a food label is one of the best steps that you could take when staying on top of your health. They are a great help when it comes to both managing your diet and preventing certain diseases. On our website you can find a wide variety of articles that can help you understand what affects the human body and how you can be better informed about your health.
This information is not intended to prevent, diagnose, prescribe, or treat any illness or condition, nor does it take the place of sound medical advice. You should always seek out your own medical care and determine the best diet and course of treatment for your unique health needs.
- There are strict requirements stating that all nutritional information must be included on the product's packaging to help keep people informed about the foods they're eating.
- If a nutrient has a daily value of less than 5% per serving, then it is considered low (low sugar, low fat).
- Food labels can be "tricky but true," and make people think the product is healthy by framing nutritional info in a more desirable way.