The Nutrition Facts label is meant to help consumers make healthy food choices, but all the numbers and measurements can be downright confusing. It’s also loaded with intimidating words, like ‘sugar’, ‘fat’ and ‘carbs’ – oh my! How much of each nutrient should you have and what numbers should you look at first? To answer these questions and more, TODAY.com enlisted two nutrition experts — Jessica Cording, RD, registered dietitian and author of The Little Book of Game Changers and Cynthia Sass, RD, plant-based performance coach — to shed some light on nutrition label facts so you can read one with confidence.
What’s on the Nutrition Facts Label?
To use the Nutrition Facts label to your advantage, you need to understand what’s on it and why. Here is a breakdown of the items on the label.
The “serving size” and “servings per container” are always listed at the top of the label. Serving size is the amount most people typically eat or drink, not the amount you should eat or drink. For example, the serving size for a bag of rice is ¼ cup (dry), which is about the amount most people can add to their meal. Servings are listed in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by weight in grams. Servings per container reflect the total number of servings in the entire container. Using the rice example, there can be 10 servings per container.
Some packages may have “double columns”, or two portions side by side. The first column shows the amount per serving, while the second column shows the amount per container. This is often used on small packages, like a single-serving bag of chips, or low-calorie items, like a pint of low-calorie ice cream.
Calories are a measure of energy. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) uses a 2,000 calorie/day diet as the standard for most Americans, although this may vary based on height, activity level, gender, and other factors. The calories listed on the food label indicate the amount in one serving, not the whole package.
Below calories are key nutrients that play a role in overall health, including fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. The FDA lists saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars as “nutrients to consume less of” and fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium as “nutrients to consume more of.” Based on the daily recommendations, these nutrients are listed in grams, milligrams, or % Daily Value.
% Daily Value
The percentages on the right indicate the percent Daily Value (DV). The United States Food & Drug Administration (USDA) sets a recommended daily amount of each nutrient. The % DV tells you how a serving of that nutrient matches the total daily recommendation. Foods with a DV of 5% or less are considered low, while foods with a DV of 20% or less are considered high.
Although not listed on the Nutrition Facts label itself, ingredients are an important part of food packaging. Ingredients are listed under the nutrition panel and are required by the FDA. They are listed in descending order, with the first ingredient being the most present in the recipe.
Where do nutritional recommendations come from?
It’s confusing that some nutrients are listed in grams, others in milligrams, and all of these numbers play a role in a total daily percentage. But rest assured, these measurements are not random. “The government sets recommended intakes for nutrients, which vary by age and gender, called recommended nutrient intakes (RDAs) and adequate intakes (AIs),” says Sass. The RDA is based on the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) or the amount that half of healthy individuals would need to eat to reduce the risk of disease. If there is insufficient scientific evidence to determine the RDA, an AI is determined based on the intake of healthy people.
These numbers – RDA and AI – are used to define the Daily Value as a percentage. Because the RDA and AI vary with age and gender, “the U.S. Food and Drug Administration selects only one value (%DV) for each nutrient based on the needs of the general population,” says Sass. “It provides a framework to help people understand which foods are good sources of which nutrients and which foods provide high amounts of things that should be eaten more sparingly,” says Cording.
What dietitians look for on the nutrition label
It’s a good idea to look at the nutrition label on all foods, but if you’re short on time, dietitians say there are a few things you can watch out for. According to Cording, what to look for on the nutrition label is subjective. “To some extent, whether something is ‘healthy’ depends on the individual and their unique needs and goals,” says Cording. A person trying to lower their LDL cholesterol levels may want to prioritize fiber and look for foods low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fats. Someone who is focused on supporting bone health will want to pay attention to calcium and vitamin D content.
Sass takes a different approach. “The first thing I look at is the ingredient list. In my opinion, this is the best way to assess the safety of a food and it helps put the numbers on the Nutrition Facts table into perspective,” says Sass. For example, a certain nut-based food may be high in fat, but it is also high in calcium and fiber. A look at the ingredients helps you gauge where that fat content is coming from.
“After reviewing the ingredient list, I think it’s important to look at all the numbers as a whole rather than focusing on a single value, like calories or grams of carbs, sugar, or protein,” Sass adds. “This oversimplification of nutrition has led to major health issues, such as accepting highly processed foods as healthy because they were low in fat and avoiding naturally nutrient-dense foods because they contain carbohydrates,” says Sass. .
Both dietitians agree that it’s best not to have an “all or nothing” mentality when evaluating foods. If a food has a few teaspoons of added sugar but also provides an impressive DV percentage for key nutrients, like fiber, iron and magnesium, Sass says it’s worth having a place in your diet.
That said, if you have a health condition or aren’t sure which nutrients are important to your lifestyle, consider consulting a dietitian.
This article originally appeared on TODAY.com