Nutrition labels are a part of the packaging of every prepared food product purchased in the United States. These “Nutrition Facts” can be found of the sides of boxed foods, on jar labels, and on the sides of cans. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that over 50 percent of us read nutrition labels, at least before the first time we purchase a product.
A Brief History
The history of the nutrition label can be traced back to 1862 when President Lincoln appointed Charles M. Wetherill, a chemist, to help in the Department of Agriculture. This started the Bureau of Chemistry which was the forerunner to what we know today as the FDA.
The first standards for food came about in 1939 and were for canned tomatoes, tomato puree, and tomato paste. Not much was listed on these early labels, mostly just calorie and/or sodium information. As more prepared dinners were being placed in markets, consumers asked for more complete nutrition information to be placed on packaging. In 1969, the FDA considered developing a way to identify the nutritional values in foods. Today, nutrition labels are still undergoing changes.
Today, more and more families are concerned about healthy eating and reading nutrition labels has become a larger part of our grocery shopping experience. But how many of us really know what we are reading? The guidelines the FDA has set is supposed to take some of the confusion and questions out of which product to buy. You just need to know how to interpret the label in order to make the best choice for you and your family. The first thing to keep in mind is, don’t be intimidated. Nutritional labels can look complicated, but they do serve a purpose.
To help simplify these nutritional labels, let’s break them down into five sections:
1. Serving Size
The top of the label has the serving size and how many servings are in the container. The serving sizes have been uniformed to make it easy to compare similar products. The rest of the nutrients listed on the label are listed “per serving size” so this is important to keep in mind. In the end, serving size sets the path for the rest of the label.
Below the serving size, you will see information about the calories. Again, keep in mind the calories listed are per serving, and servings can be almost deceptively small. If you eat more than one serving, you will need to add additional calories. If the label says a serving is one cup and one cup equals 200 calories, eating a cup and a half means you will be consuming 300 calories.
3. Limit These Nutrients
The next section contains information on fats, including saturated fats and trans fats. It also contains details on the product’s sodium and cholesterol. These all need to be eaten in moderation as they are considered the “Limit Nutrients”. According to the FDA, these are the ones, if overly eaten, will contribute to chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Keep this area low in your diet. When comparing products, you are generally better off choosing the product with a smaller percentage of these items.
4. Get Enough of These Nutrients
Next is an area that most people need to get more of, including dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals. The FDA states that fiber, vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis as well as some diseases. Higher percentages are usually beneficial in this area.
The final section is called the “Footnote” area, and it provides information about the percentage Daily Value (%DV) of nutrients you should be consuming based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. This information will always be the same because it serves as sort of a nutrition definition for Americans. It is recommended dietary information and does not relate to the specific food product contained in the package.
For example, the total fat for a 2,000 calorie per day diet is 65 grams. Since this is a “limit this” item, you should eat less than the 65 grams. Every nutrient has a Daily Value. The %DV area shows you the percentage you should stay at to eat healthy.
A Word about Ingredients
Less is more here. If you want to limit your sugar intake, make sure that the ingredient section does not contain the words, corn syrup, fruit juice from concentrate, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, maltose, or maple syrup. All of these are sugars that are added to the product. Products that have no added sugars will not have any of the above names in the ingredient section. Each product that contains added sugar can have one or more of the sugar names. Products may have natural sugars, but those do not have to be listed.