Grocery stores seem a whole lot more like libraries nowadays. But instead of picking up a good book, shoppers are reading nutrition labels – and with good reason.
“By checking out the label before you buy, you can find lower-fat and higher-fiber foods that can help you eat healthier,” says Christine M. Palumbo, a dietitian in private practice in the Chicago area. Below, Palumbo shares her guided tour of a nutrition label:
The first line defines what makes up one serving of the food by weight (grams) or measure (1/2 cup). When comparing choices, be sure the serving size is the same for a fair comparison of calories and nutrients.
Serving per Container
The second line tells the number of servings found in the container. Most packages contain more than one serving.
Amount per Serving
The next set of information is spelled out based on the serving size declared above.
The calories on the label are based on the amount in one serving – but most packages contain multiple servings. To figure out the total calories in the package, you’ll need to do some math. For example, a 3-oz bag of chips may contain three servings at 160 calories each – which means 480 calories for the entire bag.
Calories from Fat
Nutrition labels list the number of calories contributed by the fat in the food. Fat provides more calories per amount than carbohydrate or protein – and its consumption may be linked to disease – so be sure to balance high-fat foods with foods that contain lower amounts of fat.
Fat and Cholesterol
The label shows the amount of fat present in the food. Because there are different kinds of fat, the label lists amounts of saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats, followed by the amount of cholesterol.
Fiber is part of the carbohydrate present in foods. Look for foods that are rich in fiber – those containing 5 grams of fiber or more per serving or good sources at 3 g of fiber per serving.
Percent Daily Value (%DV)
The % Daily Value (%DV) listed next to various nutrients is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Look for foods with smaller amounts of fat, saturated fat, and sodium. And choose options with higher percentages of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Vitamins and Minerals
Amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron are listed as %DV on nutrition labels – but other nutrients may be listed too, if they are present. Nutrients with 10%DV are good sources while 20%DV or more indicates an excellent source.
Ingredients are listed by weight. The ingredient with the greatest weight is shown first; the ingredient with the smallest weight is listed last. If you’re looking for whole grains, choose foods with “whole” before the grain, as in whole wheat or whole oats, as the first or second ingredient.
As allergy concerns increase, so has allergen information on packaging. Good news: A 2006 FDA rule mandates that foods contain warnings (below the ingredient list) for the presence of potential allergens (milk, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, wheat, egg, shellfish, or fish).