Before putting together a new piece of furniture, playing a board game or starting a complicated project, you usually begin with one important step: reading the instructions. Without the instructions, you don't know what the end result will look like, if you'll be a winner and, ultimately, whether the project is worth your time.
Now consider your approach to eating. Do you carefully read the food label on a new food before trying it? Do you evaluate it to determine exactly what it offers you? Most people read one or two lines, possibly to check on carbs or maybe calories. While these two items are important, it's essential to carefully evaluate the entire food label and understand how it fits into the context of your day.
Start with the serving size
Always begin by reading the serving size, which is located at the very top of the nutrition facts panel. Skip this step and you could be fooled into thinking that a food is a good choice for you when it really isn't -- thinking it's just one portion when it actually contains three. While there's talk of altering food labels so that the serving size matches the size of the package (think of that "single portion" of chips or bottle of soda that is actually two or three servings), it will always be very important to read serving size first.
Consider the food -- then check the calories, protein, fat and carbs
Now that you know the serving size, consider the food as a whole. Noting the calories is obviously very important, but more important is to note the calories and the protein and fat. Think of it like this: Calories, protein and fat will fill you up. Calories alone will make you hungrier and ultimately add calories to your day. (Yup, we're looking at you, fat-free, 100-calorie pack with just one or two grams of protein.)
What is that %DV anyway?
%DV refers to Percent Daily Value, which helps us determine whether a food is high or low in a particular nutrient, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. While it's helpful to know if a food offers a lot (20% DV) or a little (5% DV) of a particular nutrient, it's not a perfect guide for anyone who isn't following a 2,000-calorie diet or those of us who don't know how many calories we need (aka most of us). Use the %DV to help you generally determine if a food is a good source of, say, fiber, and low in what you are trying to limit, such as sodium.
Total fat vs. type of fat
The type of fat matters more than total fat. Recall that fat is important for satisfying us to control hunger and that our heart-healthy fats, such as poly- and monounsaturated fats actually benefit us, while saturated fat should be limited and trans fats avoided. With this in mind, the type of fat matters far more than the total fat per serving.
Loads of vitamins
As you work your way down the food label, you'll find a list of the vitamins and minerals and the %DV offered for each. In most cases, a food rich in several vitamins and minerals has been fortified with synthetic nutrients. While fortification aids in our regular consumption of these nutrients, it's important to remember to consume whole foods that naturally provide these nutrients instead of only relying on fortified foods.
Dietary fiber to determine if it's really whole grain
The front of a package may advertise that a product contains whole grains, but the proof is on the nutrition facts panel. If a product doesn't contain 20 percent or more of the %DV for dietary fiber, then it's not considered a significant source of fiber.
Readers -- Do you read food labels when you go food shopping? Does it help you decided what to buy and what not to buy, or are they too confusing? What kinds of things do you look for on a food label? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Allison Stowell, M.S., RD, CDN, is the registered dietitian for the Guiding Stars Licensing Company, a company devoted to helping people find the good, better and best choices at the supermarket. A working mom of two, Allison enables individuals to make positive, sustainable changes in their eating habits by stressing conscious eating, improving relationships with food and offering a non-diet approach for reaching and maintaining ideal body weight. Visit her blog to read more and connect with Allison on Twitter.