How to Read & Use a Nutrition Label to Your Advantage
By Maarten Van Nus & Barb Kelly
So, you now believe that what you put into your body is the most important factor to living a long, healthy life. You’ve even started choosing healthier foods when you’re buying groceries and you are making more meals at home rather than picking-up prepared or take-out meals, ordering in, or heading to favourite eateries for a quick bite at breakfast, lunch, or dinner – Fantastic!
You’ve also started reading ingredients lists on all the pre-packaged items you purchase. As you read, you’re amazed at what is in some of the foods you have eaten for years, even foods you thought were healthy, but you still find the ingredient lists and nutrition charts on packaged foods confusing? Don’t be surprised or feel stupid.
Food labels contain a lot of information in a small space and are confusing. They can even be misleading if you don’t know how to use them correctly.
In this article, we are going to help you read and use nutrition labels correctly so you can determine what you should look for and what you should look out for. Depending on your current state of health, or that of someone you feed, you may need or want to look at the information a bit differently than everyone else.
For example, those trying to lose weight should focus on fat content and carbohydrate levels. Those will high blood pressure may need to pay special attention to sodium and cholesterol levels. Those trying to build muscle may want to know how much protein a food contains. Individuals with diabetes should look at sugar and carbohydrate values, as well as fat values if they are trying to lose or maintain their weight (often the case for those with Type 2 diabetes).
Understanding how to read and use a food label is a critical step in making healthier food choices for you and those for whom you shop.
Interpreting a Nutrition Label
Here we have examples of typical food labels in Canada, the US, and the EU (European Union). The foods that the labels are from is not important for our purposes. What is important is learning how to interpret the food labels so you can use them to make healthy choices for your own, personal situation (and the situations of those for whom you may prepare food).
The Label Name
Many call the chart on food packaging an ingredients list, but that is an error. The ingredients list appears separate from the nutrition information in North America, although it is often directly below or above it.
The ingredients list simply lists all the ingredients the food product contains, starting with the ingredient with the highest weight and ending with the lowest. In general, it is safe to assume that the first four or five ingredients make up the bulk of the product, so look at those ingredients carefully to determine if they are desirable or not.
The ingredients list is important but it is the nutritional chart on the package that is really useful. Note that the title of the chart is Nutrition Facts. It is NOT Nutrition Advice!
That is because the chart is not personalized to you. The nutrition label is required by law. It does not indicate that the producer has your health in mind when creating the product and it does not indicate that the food is healthy!
The Nutrition Facts are simply that: Facts. Facts in themselves are not useful. A financial balance sheet is full of facts, but if one doesn’t know how to read and interpret the facts on the sheet, one gets very little information and meaning from it.
The same is true for nutritional labels. You must learn a bit about how to interpret the facts provided to determine how much of the food is appropriate for you to eat, if any at all.
The Nutrition Facts At A Glance
Note that nutrition labels are required on all pre-packaged food and are displayed in a similar manner.
There is a column of nutrients down one side, followed by a value in grams (g), and a column of percentage values down the other side. Our eyes tend to fall to the column with less information so many people notice the column of percentages before anything else. This, in itself, is not a good thing. Here’s why:
Food is composed of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. We require a minimum amount of each every day to maintain our weight, stay active, and stay healthy. Too little or too much of any one of these 3 nutrients over time can lead to weight loss, weight gain, loss of energy, lethargy, numerous illnesses, and even death.
The right-hand column of a nutrition label is titled % Daily Value. The idea is that as long as you keep track of your intake of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and do not go over 100% for any one in a given day, you are eating a safe or the required amount of the components of a healthy diet.
The problem is that 100% of intake for one person may be very different than 100% for another.
For example, the daily requirements for a old, inactive woman weighing 45 kg (100 pounds) are much lower than those of an young, elite athlete weighing 80 kg (176 pounds). The percentage values in the Nutrition Fact chart are inaccurate for both of these people.
Nutrition Facts: Human Size Choice
When setting the requirements for labels in the US, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had to chose one human size to standardize the comparison of foods.
For example, when looking at food labels for two brands of chips, we must know that the information on each label is for one serving size as well as for one human size. We must compare apples to apples, after all, not apples to oranges.
For simplicity’s sake, the FDA decided to select a human needing a 2000-calorie per day diet. The same 2000-calorie requiring human is used by Canada, Mexico, and the European Union.
What is important to note here is who can consume a 2000 calorie per day without gaining or losing weight. What size of person is it?
A 2000 calorie per day diet is suitable for a moderately active 60kg (132 pound) adult female to maintain her weight.[i]
How many of you reading this article are a 60kg, moderately active female?
That’s right, very few. That means that anyone who is not a 60kg, moderately active female must look at food labels with that in mind and must ignore the percentage values provided. Only 60kg, moderately active females can look at nutrition labels and take the percentages in the right-hand column at face value. All others are better to use the gram values of each nutrient.
Calculating Your Minimum Nutrient Requirements
There are 4 calculations you must do and remember when working with food labels
- The total number of calories you need per day.
- The total amount of protein you need per day.
- The total amount of fat you need each day.
- The total amount of carbohydrates you need each day.
To determine one’s daily caloric needs the following factors are considered:
- Weight (current or desired)
- Activity level
These values are then used in a mathematical formula to determine the number of calories that should be consumed.
The easiest way to calculate daily caloric requirements is to use a good online calculator, like the one at freedieting.com. Over time, different formulas have been determined for calculating caloric needs for individuals, we recommend you use the most recent, the Miffin-St. Joer.
In general, active people should have 0.82 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day to maintain a healthy, strong body.[ii]
- If you only know you weight in kilograms, convert your weight to pounds by multiplying your weight in kilograms by 2.2.
- To determine the number of grams of protein your should eat, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.82 grams.
Example: A man or woman weighing 78 kgs.
- 78kg x 2.2lbx/kg = 171.6lbs
- 6lbs x 0.82g/lb = 140.7 g
Thus, someone weighing 78 kilograms should consume 141 grams of protein per day.
And, someone who is 60 kg (our moderately active woman, for example), should consume 108 grams of protein per day.
Thus, someone weighing 78kgs and looking at the % Daily Value (%DV) to reach 100% will not be getting enough protein to remain healthy because they will consume 108 grams of protein rather than 140 grams per day. However, if the same person uses the gram values shown on the left-hand side of the label until s/he reaches 63 grams, s/he will be getting the correct amount of protein even though s/he will have exceeded 100% according to the %DV.
Fats have been given a bad rap over the years, however unsaturated fats – mono and poly – are critical to our fitness as they assist with the absorption of critical vitamins and minerals our bodies need.
In general, 20 to 35 percent of our diet each day needs to be comprised of healthy, unsaturated fats.
To calculate the number of grams of fat you should have each day, we need your recommended daily calorie intake calculated using the online calculator at freedieting.com.
Each gram of fat that we consume contains 9 calories. And 20 – 35% of our daily calories should come from fat. Thus, dividing your total recommended calorie intake by 9 (or multiplying by 0.11) and determining 20% and 35% of that number provides a range of fat grams that you should consume each day.
For Example: A 54-year-old, 5ft 10in, 175lb man with moderate activity.
According to the online calculator, a moderately active, 5ft10in, 175lb, 54-year old man needs 2251 calories to maintain his current size.
- 2251 calories x .11 g/calories = 247.61 grams
- 61g x .20 (20%) = 49.5 grams
- 61g x .35 (35%) = 86.7 grams
Thus, our 54-year-old man should consume between 49.5 and 86.7 grams of fat per day. Our 60kg, moderately active woman should eat between 44 and 77 grams per day. Again, her 100% (77 grams) is not equivalent to his 100% (86.7 gram) so relying on the %DV values for the gentleman may result in unhealthy fat intake.
If one wants to loss weight, eat less than the daily minimum of fat. However, to gain weight, it is better to eat more protein, which builds muscle, rather than more fat, which simply adds dangerous fat to one’s body composition.
Carbohydrates provide energy to the body. They allow our muscle to be active and work, which is necessary for every movement we have, including breathing and out heartbeat.
In general, 40 to 60 percent of our diet each day needs to be complex and simple carbohydrates (complex carbohydrates are strongly recommended over simple, however). Note that sugars and fibre are part of carbohydrates and are listed separately on the Nutrition Fact labels. Sugars should be limited and, thus, do not have an acceptable %DV amount. Fibre is important for digestion and processed foods often do not have sufficient fibre for our needs. If you have trouble with bowel movements and/or digestion, you may want to keep track of your fibre intake each day.
To calculate the number of grams of carbohydrates you should have each day, we need your recommended daily calorie intake calculated using the online calculator at freedieting.com.
Each gram of carbohydate that we consume contains 4 calories. And 40 – 60% of our daily calories should come from fat. Thus, dividing your total recommended calorie intake by 4 (or multiplying by 0..25) and determining 40% and 60% of that number provides a range of total carbohydrate grams that you should consume each day.
For Example: A 5ft 4in, 65-year-old, 50 kg woman with high activity.
According to the online caloric calculator, a 65 year-old, 5ft 4 inch, 50 kg, highly active woman needs 1687 calories per day.
- 1687 calories/day x .25 grams/calories = 421.75 grams/day
- 75 g/day x .40 (40%) = 168.7 grams/day
- 75 grams/day x .60 (60%) = 253.6 grams/day
So, this 65 year-old woman, requires between 169 and 234 grams of carbohydrate per day to maintain a healthy body. Our 2000 calorie-a-day Nutrition Lady will need 200 to 300 grams of carbohydrate per day, which is much higher than our 65-year-old. If the 65-year-old relied solely on the %DV calculations of Nutrition labels, she may consistently consume more carbohydrate than needed and, subsequently, gain weight and be less healthy.
Again, if our 65-year-old wishes to lose weight, she should eat fewer than 169 carbohydrates per day (and less fat) and, if she wishes to gain weight, she should consume more than 234 grams of carbohydrate (and more protein).
Note that those with diabetes, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and some other diseases or conditions may need to eat lower amounts of carbohydrates than determined using the calculation here and should consult with their doctor and/or dietician for guidance.
You’ve Got the Numbers, Now Use Them!
So, you now know the number of calories and grams of fat, carbohydrate, and protein you should consume each day, now what?
Now, it’s time to look at the nutrition fact label again. The first thing to notice is at the very top of the chart – serving size.
Serving sizes used for the Nutritional information are often much smaller than what you may consider a serving size! For example, a serving size of peanuts is usually 1/3 of a cup, which is a single handful for most people! And that handful will have 25 grams of fat in it. Two handfuls of nuts could take up a small person’s entire daily allotment for fat.
So, start paying close attention to serving sizes on food labels. It’s fine to eat more than one serving of the food but remember to multiply the nutrients values in the chart by the number of servings you are having.
For example, a serving size for the rice you made is ½ cup (125 ml) but you are eating 1½ cups of it. To calculate the nutrients and energy the rice is providing, you must multiply every value on the Nutrition Facts by 3.
Next is the number of calories per serving and, in the US, the calories from fat. Calories represent the amount of energy one serving of the food provides.
Counting calories is not as important as many believe. While tracking caloric intake to limit it each day is useful for those trying to lose weight, recent research and practice has shown the number of calories a food provides in not as important as the make-up of its nutrients. For example, it is usually better to eat 130 calories of protein than 130 calories of fat.
In other words, what makes up the calories is much more important than the calorie count itself. Ideally, if one is eating the correct amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fats each day, the calorie count will be correct as well and by monitoring your intake of fat, carbohydrates, and protein you know that the make-up of your diet is healthy for you.
Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium
The first three nutrients in the Nutrition Facts are those that should be limited for most people: fat, cholesterol, and sodium. North American and European diets generally have enough or too much of these nutrients. Overeating these nutrients leads to obesity, high blood pressure, clogged arteries, heart disease, circulation problems, and many other illnesses and conditions.
The Fat value includes unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats, but the saturated and trans fat values are also shown separately because they are the dangerous fats that we need to avoid. Unsaturated fat, which make up the remained of the fat content are good for us and are needed for our body to remain healthy.
Sodium occurs naturally in real foods (that is, foods that do not required nutrition labels because they are natural – fresh produce, meat, poultry, fish, xxxx) and it is needed to keep healthy chemical balance within our bodies. Unfortunately, the sodium on packaged foods in usually in the form of salt, which includes 40% sodium and 60% chloride, which we don’t need.
An excess of salt raises blood pressure, which contributes to heart disease, and results in water retention (bloating), which causes weight-gain.
Remember, if you add table salt to your meals, you are adding even more sodium to your diet, which can be hazardous to your health. In actuality, we require about ¾ teaspoon of sodium per day[iii] – and most of us get much more than that in the foods that we eat – adding more to our diet as a flavour enhancer is dangerous.
Despite the bad wrap carbohydrates have gained from various fad diets, they are critical to our health and should make up most of our diet. We get a number of carbohydrates from fresh fruit and vegetables, which must be included in our daily totals, but many excess carbs in our diets come from packaged foods.
The carbohydrate that has been in the news for years is sugar. It is listed separately on the Nutrional Fact label. There is no %DV given because avoiding added sugar is a goal of a healthy diet.
Sugars occur naturally in foods. The sugar amount shown on the Nutrition Chart is the amount of added sugar in the food. The added sugar can be one of many different forms. Even honey and natural fruit juices can be added sugar. White sugar is not always, or only, the culprit.
Our bodies only need the naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and vegetables, those sugars are the ones that are recognized and used the best by the body. Man-made, refined sugars should avoided as much as possible because they – along with excess amounts of fat – cause vast numbers of people to become obese. Obesity is the leading cause of Type 2 diabetes and leads to heart disease and many other illnesses, injuries, and conditions, as well.
For non-vegetarians and non-vegans, most of the protein consumed is in the form of meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy sources (eggs, cheese, etc.). Many of these sources to not have nutrition labels on their packaging because they are not required by law. It is possible, to look up the number of grams of protein in any unlabeled source online. Most individuals who eat animal proteins do not have trouble meeting their daily protein requirement. In fact, most eat too much protein over time rather than too little. While research is mixed, it is becoming clear that too much protein causes weight gain (just as too much fat or carbohydrates do), can cause kidney problems and disease, and leads to dehydration.[iv]
For those who choose not to eat meat, poultry, seafood, and/or dairy, it may be a challenge to ensure that one is getting enough protein. For those individuals, the Nutrition Facts Protein information becomes important, as does the ingredients list. The ingredients list will show the type of protein the product contains and the Nutrition Facts chart reports how much.
Key Points to Remember When Reading Nutrition Fact & Ingredient Labels
- Calculate and REMEMBER the following daily nutrient amounts:
- Pay attention to the SERVING SIZE and remember to increase or decrease the nutritional numbers according to the serving you are actually eating.
- DO NOT USE THE % DAILY VALUE (%DV) unless you are a 60kg, middle-aged women who is moderately active – better yet, just don’t use the %DVs.
- LIMIT SATURATED and TRANS FATS as much as possible.
- LIMIT SUGAR as much as possible.
- LIMIT other nutrients according to your personal situation (for example, sodium and/or cholesterol, if you have high blood pressure, etc.).
- Remember that fresh foods do not have food lables but DO count toward your daily total intake of nutrients and calories each day.
- DON’T THINK OF FOOD AS “GOOD” OR “BAD” – think of it as more or less healthy for your body and choose to do what is healthy.
- The ingredients list provides the SOURCE of the nutrients in the food you are reading about – it is important to avoid man-made sources as much as possible.
- If you are worried about losing or gaining weight, decrease or increase your daily caloric intake accordingly and recalculate the amount of Fat, Carbohydrates, and Protein you should be having each day until your desired weight is achieved.
[i] Calorie Control Council. Why 2000 Calories? Retrieved from http://caloriecontrol.org/why-2000-calories/
[ii] Van Nus, M. 2016. Help: I’m Being Held Prisoner By My Couch!. BoomerBody Fitness: Surrey, BC, p. 77.
[iii] Van Nus, M. 2016. Lose Weight & Live Longer: Stop Eating These 3 Things. BoomerBody.ca. Retrieved from http://www.boomerbody.ca/lose-weight-live-longer-stop-consuming-these-3-things/
[iv] Klein, S. 2014. 3 Signs You Could Be Eating Too Much Protein. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/12/eating-too-much-protein_n_5481307.html.