Everyone is familiar with food labels, we see them every time we are at the grocery store but how many of us really understand how to read a food label and then decipher what all that information means?  Most people are indeed unaware of what these labels actually mean.  This is very alarming because it means we are simply putting things into our body without any knowledge of how much and what exactly it is we are eating.  My hope is that after reading this, you will be well educated and prepared next time you encounter a food label and maybe even find that some of those foods you have been purchasing are no longer the best option for you.

*Note: currently there are some proposed changes to food labels being reviewed by the FDA.  The revisions are supposed to make reading a food label much easier as well as make the serving sizes more realistic.  For now, let’s explore the current model.

Here is a label for Tostitos Tortilla Chips:

Tostitos Nutritional Info

Serving Size:

The first thing listed is Serving Size and it means that each value listed below it is based on this number.  For these chips it is 1oz or 28g or about 7 chips.  This is not very much and most people will consume more than one serving. It is best to pay attention to your intake so you know what calories and nutrients you are consuming.

Servings per Container:

This is absent from this particular label, which is unfortunate because this tells you how many total servings are in the whole bag.  Since the serving size is 1oz, in this case it would be whatever the size of the bag is, usually 18oz or 18 total servings.

Calories:

This number tells you the number of calories in one serving. In this example 1oz, or about 7 chips, contain 140 calories.  So if you consume the whole bag your total calorie intake would be 140 calories X 18 servings= 2,520 calories.

% Daily Value:

The Percent Daily Value on the label is a guide to the nutrients in one serving of food.  These values are set by the FDA and based on a 2,000-calorie diet for healthy adults. So for example, each serving of chips would give you 10% of the total fat you need each day according to the FDA.  However, focusing on the total amounts per serving of calories and nutrients is a much better way to read the food label rather than focusing on the % Daily Value.

Total Fat:

This is the total amount of fat in each serving.  It is broken down into Saturated and Trans Fat.  You should avoid foods high in Trans Fat; these are the “man-made” fats that have a negative effect on your health. If you notice that the listed fats do not equal the Total Fat, it is because the FDA does not require the Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated fats to be listed.  These are the “good fats” and to find the total amount, just subtract the Saturated and Trans fat from the Total Fat.  For example, the chips would have 6g of these other fats.

Cholesterol & Sodium:

This is the total amount of cholesterol and sodium per serving size.   If you avoid Trans Fats your cholesterol will remain in a healthy range. You should also try to limit your sodium intake.  High levels of sodium can be found hidden in many packaged foods, dressings, sauces, and canned soup.

Total Carbohydrates:

This value is the total amount of carbohydrates per serving.  The carbohydrates are then further broken down into Dietary Fiber and Sugars.  These numbers should add up to the Total Carbohydrates but often do not because like Total Fat, other carbohydrates are not required to be listed.  These other carbohydrates are Complex Carbohydrates, not including Fiber.  This number should reflect the more nutritious sugars found naturally present in food.

Protein:

This value lists the total grams of protein per serving.

Vitamins & Minerals:

This list includes the percentage of the recommended daily allowance for vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron in each serving.

Ingredients:

Lastly, the most important part of a food label in my opinion is the ingredients list.  This is where every ingredient in the food is listed in order, starting with the ingredient found in the largest amount by weight and then continuing on to the smallest amount.  For people with food allergies this is the most crucial part of the food label.  This is where you can find whether or not the food has any artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors or preservatives.  This is also where you can find if the food is made with enriched flour, hydrogenated oils, MSG or Nitrates/Nitrites.  All of which are food additives that should be avoided. The foods you should be eating should have minimal ingredients. 

I hope that after reading this you have learned something about what to look for and more importantly what foods to avoid based on their food labels.  It is important that you are informed and educated about food. So be sure to read every label before putting something in your cart and more importantly in your body.