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How to Read & Understand Food Labels

By Jenny Craig

Feeling unsure about what's actually 'healthy' foods when shopping at the grocery store? The Nutrition Facts Label on the back of a package can help you make those healthier food choices. The nutrition label is your guide to identifying nutrients that are good for you like fiber and calcium, as well as those you might want to limit or avoid like saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. It's important to know how to read food labels to make healthy and smart food decisions.

 

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Here are some quick tips for how to understand and read food labels:

 

1. Watch the Serving Size

 

  • Found at the top of the nutrition label, this will help identify your size of a serving and total number of servings per container. Packages usually contain more than one serving, which requires you to multiply all of the values listed to get an accurate amount of calories, sugar, fat, sodium, etc. per package.
  • If the portion size on the label doesn’t match the serving size you're used to, divide it into the "right size" portion to fit your needs.

 

2. Know Your % Daily Values (DVs)

 

  • Scan the nutrition label for the % DV. This is the recommended amount for a nutrient, based on a 2000 calorie diet.
  • Your personal DV may be lower depending on your menu calorie level.
  • A food that has 5% or less of the DV is considered to be low in that nutrient.
  • A food that has 20% or more of the DV is considered to be high in that nutrient.

     

    3. Choose Foods with Key Nutrients

     

    • Look for foods that have at least 20% of the DV for vitamins D, calcium and iron.
    • Pick foods that are rich in dietary fiber: A good source has 3 grams and an excellent source has 5 grams of dietary fiber per serving.


    4. Look for Added Fat/Saturated Fat, Sugars and Sodium

     

    • Refer to the nutrition facts label to see if a food product contains added fat or sugar. That's important because these can be "hidden" calories.
    • Choose foods that are low in added fat, especially saturated fat.
    • Look at the grams of total fat in 1 serving.
    • Choose foods that are <10% of the DV for saturated fat and have zero trans-fat as these both raise blood cholesterol.
    • Choose foods that include unsaturated fat as these support healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels.


    5. Select foods that are low in added sugar.

     

    Added sugars include these ingredients: brown sugar, confectioner's sugar, powdered sugar, turbinado, cane sugar, invert, sucrose, polydextrose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, syrup (corn, maple and agave), honey, molasses and agave nectar. Cut back on foods and beverages higher in these components to amounts that fit within healthy eating patterns.


    Use these tips to limit added sugar:

    • Cut back on package foods that are high in sugar and sodium
    • Skip sugary drinks
    • Cut out candy
    • Choose heart-healthy foods


    In addition, you can use sugar substitutes to reduce your sugar intake.


    6. Check the Ingredient List


    Foods that contain more than one ingredient must list those ingredients on the nutrition label. The list of ingredients is in descending order by weight, with the largest amounts listed first. If you are trying to cut back on high fructose corn syrup, you will be able to easily determine which food item contains a large amount of high fructose corn syrup right away by looking at the listed ingredients.


    Use these 6 tips to help you better understand food labels and put you in control of your health. Knowing how to read nutrition labels will also help you to make smart decisions while grocery shopping to ensure the healthy foods you’re buying are in fact healthy and support your weight loss goals.

     

    Sources: 

    Choose Your Foods: Food Lists for Weight Management, American Diabetes Association and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2014, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Diabetes Association, Inc®.
    http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm


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