How to Get the Facts on Food Labels
By KIMBERLY WOLF
LIVESTRONG.COM is dedicated to empowering and inspiring people of all ages to live active, healthy lives. In light of that mission, the Editorial Team has partnered with ShimmerTeen.com to create content that promotes health and wellness for teens.
Nutrition Facts labels (also known as food labels) can look like a jumble of confusing numbers and unfamiliar words. They're not exactly a beach read, but they are designed to keep you in the know. After all, in a world of processed foods, often with unnatural coloring and pretty packaging to catch your eye, it can sometimes be hard to know what you are actually eating.
Once you know the basics of food labels, they're easy to understand. And whether you have short-term weight-loss goals or you want to maintain a healthy lifestyle for the long haul (highly recommended), paying attention to nutrition facts labels can keep you on track.
Here are a few key sections and tips to consider next time you're cooking your favorite meal or choosing the perfect snack to fuel you for an afternoon of sports or homework.
Where to find it: At the top of the Nutrition Facts label.
Why it matters: It's easy to think that a whole bag of chips, a packaged pastry or a box of your favorite instant mac and cheese is meant for one person to eat in a single sitting. But if you take a look at the serving sizes of your favorite foods, you might discover that they contain multiple portions. Your fruit smoothie might have two servings in it, not one. A small bag of chips might be one serving, while a large bag of chips could contain six.
The serving-size section on a food label tells you how much of a given food is recommended for eating in a single sitting, and this is the amount of food that the rest of the numbers on the food label (calories, fats, etc.) refer to. If a serving size is half of the box of mac and cheese, the numbers in the other sections will refer to this portion size.
[Read More: 6 Ways for Teens to Access Healthy Food]
Derek Johnson, nutrition director for New Metabolism and executive nutrition director for The Biggest Loser® Resort, notes that portion control is about "having a healthy relationship with food" and not overdoing it with unhealthy products, especially when it comes to foods with processed sugar. Understanding the serving size can help you choose how much of a product you want to eat at one time and keep you from overeating.
Bonus Tip* Always check the serving size. Even foods labeled "healthy," "nonfat" or "organic" are meant to be eaten in limited amounts.
Percent Daily Value
Where to find it: You will see percent daily values on the right side of label and a standard description of percent daily values below the nutrients section on the label.
Why it matters: Percent daily value refers to how much of a nutrient a person can get from one serving size in relation to how much of that nutrient experts recommend you should have each day. For example, if the amount of protein in an energy bar is listed as 30 percent of your daily value, that is 30 percent of the protein you are supposed to have in one day.
Foods offering less than 5 percent daily value of a given nutrient are considered to be low in that nutrient. Foods providing 20 percent or more daily value are considered to be high in that nutrient.
Bonus Tip* The government bases food label information on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. Depending on your age, weight and health needs, you may require more or less than 2,000 calories a day, and so your percent daily value numbers may be slightly different.
To find out how many calories a day you should consume, check out the federal government's tools and then check with a parent or a health care practitioner like a school nurse, nutrition counselor or doctor.
Where to find it: Near the top of the label.
Why it matters: This number refers to the calories in a given serving. If you are eating more than one serving or you want to know how much is in the whole package, multiply the number of calories by the number of servings you plan to eat or that are listed under serving size.
Bonus Tip* Not all calories are created equal, so don't fall into the trap of choosing foods based on calorie numbers alone. Some healthy foods can be higher in calories than their unhealthy counterparts. Your favorite candy might be lower in calories than a protein-rich yogurt snack, but that doesn't mean the candy is the better choice.
Fats and Sodium
Where to find them: Fats are near the top of the label below calories. Sodium is midway through the nutrients section of the label.
Why it matters: While some types of fats are healthy and some sodium (salt) is OK to eat, consuming too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium is linked to obesity and can also put you at risk for heart disease and other ailments. Again, to find out what is best for your age and body type, check with a knowledgeable adult.
[Read More: Getting in Shape Doesn't Have to Mean Losing Weight]
Bonus Tip* Stay away from trans fat. Trans fat (also referred to as trans-fatty acids) is a processed ingredient used to prevent some foods from spoiling on the shelves. Health experts agree that trans fats are terrible for you.
Where to find it: Near the bottom of the nutrients section of the label, above protein.
Why it matters: Some sugars, like those found in fresh fruit, are naturally occurring and have nutritional value. Other sugars, like those found in candies and sodas are considered unhealthy (these foods are often said to contain "empty" calories) because they lack nutritional value and, if eaten in excess, can put you at risk for obesity and diabetes.
In addition, while processed sugars can give you a temporary energy boost, soon afterward, they can leave you feeling tired, hungry and reaching for another snack.
Bonus Tip* Sometimes food manufacturers will sneak added sugars into foods to enhance taste. They even do this for low-fat and nonfat products. Would you ever think there would be sugar in pasta sauce? Start looking at the labels on the jars. What do you see?
Fiber, Protein, Vitamins and Minerals
Where to find them: Near the bottom of the nutrients section of the label.
Why they matter: It's tempting to go for foods that are high in unhealthy fat and sugar, and it's not always as exciting to pick foods that are full of the nutrients our bodies need. Nutrients like fiber, which aids in digestion, and protein, which helps stabilize your energy and build muscle, are essential in supporting physical health.
Vitamins and minerals can improve your immune system, brain function and even skin health, as well as help reduce the risk of some diseases and chronic conditions. Like with calories, your age, weight and any medical issues can have an impact on the amount of nutrients recommended to keep you strong and feeling good.
If you aren't sure how much of a given nutrient you need each day, check with a healthcare practitioner or ask a parent to help you find the information that is best for your body.
Where to find it: At the bottom of the label.
Why they matter: Foods like apples, celery, and grilled chicken don't have ingredient labels. Why not? Because they are in their natural form and have not been processed or combined with additional food products or preservatives.
For example, have you ever wondered how they managed to make those chips taste like cheese or ranch? The answer might surprise you. Rather than using real cheese, the manufacturer might have covered them with a chemical additive to give them a creamy, cheesy flavor. Ingredients are also listed in order of quantity, so if the first ingredients listed include salt, sugar or something you can't pronounce or don't recognize, then you may want to consider if it’s something that you really want to eat.
Bonus Tip* To help spot healthy options, Derek Johnson recommends asking several questions when looking at food labels. First, how many ingredients are there? Often, the more ingredients a product contains, the more unnatural additives it has. Second, is it food or is it preservatives or other unrecognizable chemicals? Next, is it processed sugar?
"If so," Johnson says, "put it down." Finally, ask if your body will recognize this as food. Johnson gives Kind bars as an example: "You can look at them and see that they are mostly fruits and nuts," rather than processed ingredients.
Readers -- Do you read food labels when you shop for food? Have you seen anything on a food label lately that surprised you? Have you ever not purchased something because of the ingredients or number of calories? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Kimberly Wolf, M.Ed., is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of ShimmerTeen.com, a new health, wellness and lifestyle destination just for teenage girls. Kimberly graduated from Brown University, where her senior thesis exploring the history and evolution of sexual-health content in girls' magazines earned honors in Women's Studies. She also holds a master's degree in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she studied adolescent health and media. She is a national speaker and has been quoted on such websites as CNN.com, WebMD and Health.com.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.” N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
“Trans Fat: Avoid This Cholesterol Double Whammy.” Mayo Clinic, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015