Taking a Closer Look At Labels
You can use the information on the Nutrition Facts label to compare foods and make better choices. These food labels are especially helpful if you use carbohydrate counting to plan your meals.
Start by looking at the serving size. All of the information on the label is based on the serving size listed. If you eat more, that means you'll be getting more calories, carbohydrates, etc.
Using Amount Per Serving
The information on the left side of the label provides total amounts per serving of the different nutrients. These are shown in grams which are abbreviated as g; or in milligrams, shown as mg. Use total amounts to compare labels of similar foods. Nutrients that you'll want to limit are listed toward the top of the label. (So choose foods with less calories, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. Also, try to select foods with more fiber, which is listed lower on the label under total carbohdyrate.
If you are trying to lose or maintain your weight, the number of calories you eat is important. To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than your body burns. Use labels to compare similar products to determine which contains fewer calories.
Total carbohydrate on the label includes all types of carbohydrate - sugar, complex carbohydrate and fiber. Because all types of carbohydrate can affect blood glucose, it's important to use the total grams when counting carbs or choosing foods to include, rather than just the grams of sugar.
If you look only at the sugar number, you may end up overeating foods such as grains that have no natural or added sugar, but do contain a lot of carbohydrate. You might also exclude nutritious foods such as fruit and low-fat dairy thinking they are too high in sugar. (These foods have natural sugars, but they are packed with important nutrients and are considered healthy choices. Note that grams of sugar on the label does not distinguish between natural and added sugars.)
Fiber is part of plant foods that is not digested – or for some types, only partially digested. Dried beans such as kidney or pinto beans, fruits, vegetables and grains are all good sources of fiber. The recommendation for fiber is to eat about 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. But many Americans are only getting about half the fiber that they need per day. In general, look for foods with more fiber per serving!
Sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) include sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol, and have fewer calories than sugars and starches. If a food contains these, it would be listed on the label as well.
Use of sugar alcohols in a product does not necessarily mean the product is low in carbohydrate or calories. And, just because a package says "sugar-free" on the outside, that does not mean that it is calorie or carbohydrate-free. Always remember to check the label for the grams of carbohydrate and calories.
Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, and Cholesterol
Total fat tells you how much fat is in a food per serving. It includes fats that are good for you such as mono and polyunsaturated fats, and fats that are not so good, such as saturated and trans fats. Mono and polyunsaturated fats can help to lower your blood cholesterol and protect your heart. Saturated and trans fat can raise your blood cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. The cholesterol in food may also increase your blood cholesterol.
When it comes to fat, focus on choosing foods with the least saturated fat and no trans fat per serving. You'll also want to limit the amount of cholesterol you eat. Too much of these "unhealthy fats" can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. Both saturated and trans fat are listed out on the label under total fat. Cholesterol is also listed out.
Fat is calorie-dense. Per gram, it has more than twice the calories of carbohydrate or protein. Although some types of fats, such as mono and polyunsaturated fats are considered healthy fats, it is still important to pay attention to the overall number of calories that you consume to maintain a healthy weight.
Sodium does not affect blood glucose levels. However, many people eat much more sodium than they need. Table salt is very high in sodium. You might hear people use "sodium" in lieu of "table salt," or vice versa.
With many foods, you can taste how salty they are, such as pickles or bacon. But there is also hidden salt in many foods, like cheeses, salad dressings, lunch meat, canned soups and other packaged foods. Reading labels can help you find these hidden sources and compare the sodium in different foods. Adults should aim for 2300 mg or less per day. If you have high blood pressure, it may be helpful to eat less.
(Read more on our Cutting Back on Sodium page!)
List of Ingredients
Ingredient lists can also be a helpful tool. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, meaning the first ingredient makes up the largest proportion of the food. Check the ingredient list to spot things you'd like to avoid, such as hydrogenated oil or partially-hydrogenated oil, which are high in trans fats.
The ingredient list is also a good place to look for heart-healthy ingredients such as olive, canola or peanut oils; or whole grains, like whole wheat flour and oats. To find bread high in whole grains, you would want a product that lists whole wheat flour as the first ingredient.
What about Percent Daily Values (%DV)?
The Percent Daily Values for each nutrient are found in the right column on the label. These tell you what percent of each nutrient the food provides if you were on a 2000 calorie per day diet. However, you should focus on the total amounts per serving for ease in comparing labels and counting carbohydrates.