Navigating the Nutritional Facts Label

Who doesn’t want to feel and look his or her best? It’s a rhetorical question, but could the task of looking our best be as simple as paying close attention to what we consume? It could certainly be a start. There is no question that diet affects our overall health and appearance. 

We may be familiar with the saying, “You are what you eat,” but how many of us really note what we are eating and how much, or evaluate the nutritional content of any given food we eat? Do high obesity rates indicate that too many of us are eating mindlessly? 

For decades, health and medical authorities have been telling Westerners that a nutritious and well-balanced diet reduces the risk of some cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, obesity and many other health-related issues. Recommendations made by these authorities, together with current public health concerns, have opened the way for the public to have access to information that can lead to healthier choices. 

America’s Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990 and the nutrition labeling regulations established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1994 now require manufacturers of packaged food products to inform the public of certain nutrition information. In 2006 the FDA required the disclosure of trans fatty acid (trans fat) contained in these products. Out of these regulations came the Nutrition Facts label we have today, which can be found on the front, side or back of a product. 

What does this mean for consumers? With just a little reading, we can now make healthier and more informed food choices based on our individual needs and those of our families. 

At first glance, the Nutritional Facts label can be daunting. What does it all mean? How can it be applied to our diet and health concerns? Before this information can help in establishing a healthy diet, we must know how to make sense of it. 

Basic food labeling laws regulating the disclosure of content ingredients were in effect as early as 1938. Today, the FDA has expanded these laws, requiring manufacturers to include the serving size, calories per serving, total fat (saturated and trans), cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron on the Nutritional Facts label. 

The first piece of information found on the label is the serving size, which tells us what portion of the contents is considered one serving, based on standardized measurements such as cups or tablespoons (and the metric equivalent). Next comes an estimation of the number of servings per container. This allows foods that are similar to be compared. Because the serving size is the basis used in factoring the nutrients that are consumed, it follows that when we consume two servings, we are consuming double the calories, fat and other nutrients listed on the package. 

The next area lists the number of calories in that single serving and the total number of calories that come from fat. Being aware of the calories we consume is an important step in weight management whether one is trying to lose, maintain or gain weight. In order to lose weight, the body needs to burn more calories than are consumed. Keeping track of how many calories are eaten is the key, but it is also important to understand how many calories your body needs in order to function. This requirement varies by age and gender, and there are many online sources for estimating your particular needs. (For more information, see MyPyramid.)

The % Daily Values (%DV) has been established to help determine the recommended daily intake of nutrients per day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Using the % Daily Values can help in comparing and choosing products that are lower in sodium, fat, cholesterol and sugar, which are related to heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Ideally, these dietary elements should be limited in a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, however, they are over-consumed in the typical Western diet, leading to many health-related diseases. To be considered “low” in these areas, a food product would need to have a %DV at 5 percent or less.  

While sugars are not given a %DV, they may be limited by avoiding products that list them among the first few ingredients. This would include foods with less obvious sources of sugar like high-fructose corn syrup and fruit juice concentrate. Note that a product listed as fat-free does not necessarily mean low in calories; nor does a sugar-free product mean low in calories or in fat. 

The last area included on the label lists the nutrients that many Americans may not consume in adequate amounts. These include fiber, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. To promote a healthy diet, look for foods that are rich in these areas. Ideally, a variety of foods should be selected that add up to the 100% DV of these nutrients. 

Applying this information in the context of our daily diets can only work to our advantage. As wise consumers, we need to know what we are eating, and to know what we are eating, it is necessary to keep informed by reading labels. The Nutritional Facts label is a valuable tool that can help us navigate this information so we can make healthier and better informed choices.