How to Read Nutrition Labels and What to Look Out For

No matter what diet you’re on, it is always a good idea to learn how to read nutrition labels. Label reading is one of the best ways to make sure the foods and beverages you put in your body are providing you with the fuel and nutrients you need to be at your best. 

If you aren’t used to looking for and decoding nutrition labels, they’re super easy to locate and they’re easier than ever to read. Most of the time, all you have to do is flip over or turn around the item you’re looking at and ...voila! The nutrition label is right in front of you for you to review! For boxed items like cereal or crackers, the nutrition label is usually located on the right hand side of the package. 

All you have to do is master a few quick basics, and you’ll be a label-reading pro in no time! 

Breaking Down the Basics of a Nutrition Label

    Calories

    Simply put, calories are the energy you get from food. In order to reach your personal health goals it is important to be aware of how many calories your body requires daily to function. This number is often referred to as your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and will provide you with a baseline for the minimum amount of calories you need to be consuming on a daily basis for your body to perform basic functions like breathing and circulating blood to your organs. Many calorie calculator tools are available online, including those for low-carb or keto diets (you can check out our keto calculator here), which can tell you your BMR as well as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), which is an estimate of how many calories you burn throughout the day based on your exercise and activity level. You can also check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for a simple estimate of calories your body needs factored by your age and your activity level.  Your BMR and TDEE allow you to better calculate what your total caloric intake should be per day to reach your personal health goals. 

    Serving Size

    When you look at a nutrition label, it’s important to notice how much of that product counts as one serving. The servings per package will be provided in kitchen measurements (e.g. teaspoon, 1/3 cup) as well as by weight. Weight is considered the gold standard for tracking actual serving size. If you have more than the suggested serving size on the package, you need to multiply the calorie content for a more accurate total of your intake.

    Nutrition Label example showing 200 calories per serving. A serving is 1/2 cup and there are 8 servings in the container.

    For example, on the label shown above, the serving size is a 1/2 cup and there are 8 servings per container. If you eat ½ of the package in one sitting (2 cups), you’ll have consumed a whopping 800 calories!

    Total Fat

    Nutrition labels are required to include total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. The total amount of fat in the diet is a percentage of your calorie needs. The recommendation for the typical American diet is around 30%. For someone taking in 2,000 calories, this would mean around 70 grams of total fat per day. The recommendation for fat intake on the keto diet range from 60-75% fat. For someone taking in 2,000 calories this would be between 130-160 grams per day. 

    Total fat includes unsaturated (such as from avocado, olive and vegetable oils), saturated, and trans fat. Labels are still required to specifically list amount of saturated fat because of input from health organizations which suggest limiting to less than 10% to reduce risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are typically found in meat and dairy products, but can also be plant-based, such as with coconut and palm oil. Keto diets should focus on eating a combination of unsaturated and saturated fats that occur naturally in food and have been minimally processed. Trans fats are used mostly in processed foods to add taste and texture. They can negatively impact health and so it is recommended that you minimize trans fats in your diet whether keto or not. They can be labeled as 0 grams if they contain less than 0.5 grams per serving, but another clue that a product is made with trans fats, is if the ingredient list includes “partially hydrogenated oil.”

    Cholesterol 

    Cholesterol is a fatty like substance which comes from animal foods only. Dietary cholesterol can elevate the sticky type of fats in your bloodstream and may lead to health problems such as stroke or heart attack, so it is extra important to pay attention to this part of the label if you have been told to reduce your cholesterol intake.  

    Sodium 

    Sodium is another word for salt and it is an important electrolyte that helps maintain your body's fluid balance, especially if you're following the keto diet. When you restrict your carbohydrate intake, you can lose a lot electrolytes, especially during the initial transition into ketosis, so it is important to be aware of your salt intake. On the other hand, excess sodium can cause unhealthy outcomes with blood pressure and cardiovascular health. For this reason, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mgs) per day and an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults. If you're trying to manage your blood pressure, check out this list of blood pressure raisers from the American Heart Association.

    Total Carbohydrate

    The Nutrition Facts label lists three requirements for carbohydrates: Total Carbohydrates, Dietary Fiber, and Total Sugars. This section of the label is where you’ll see if a product has any added sugar (a keto and general dietary no-no!) as well if the product uses Sugar Alcohols to add sweetness. Sugar Alcohols may be labeled simply as such or may be called out by their individual names like polyol, erythritol, sorbitol, xylitol, etc. A clue that a substance is a sugar alcohol is if it ends in “-ol”. You may also see the term “allulose” listed in the carbohydrate section of a label. While allulose is a rare sugar, it’s very low in calories  and does not affect blood sugar so many keto dieters are embracing it as natural sweetener choice!

    The Dietary Guidelines suggest that 45-65% of your total daily calories come from carbohydrates.  For fiber, the Dietary Guidelines recommend that women consume 25 grams of fiber per day and men consume 38 grams per day . Once you turn 50, those numbers decrease slightly to  21 grams per day for women and 30 grams per day for men. 

    When following a keto diet, your carbohydrate recommendation will be much lower and usually is around 5-10% of your daily caloric intake. Although there is no official legal definition or requirement to list “Net Carbs” on nutrition labels, this is an important term for keto dieters. Net Carbs are calculated as total carbohydrates per serving, minus grams of fiber and grams of sugar alcohols per serving. 

    Protein

    Protein is the primary component of all the muscles in your body . The amount you need to consume is based on your body weight, activity level, and muscle-building or weight loss goals. Nutrition authorities suggest 56 grams per day for the average sedentary man and 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman, though many more structured diet and fitness plans do suggest far more protein than this. Using a keto calculator is a good idea for calculating how much protein you might need on a keto diet.

    Micronutrients

    The lower third of a nutrition label includes four of the micronutrients (those needed in smaller amounts) which Americans don’t typically get enough of in their daily diets: Vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium.


    Important Changes to Nutrition Labels

    In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated its guidelines for how food and beverage companies display and disclose information on their Nutrition Facts Panel so it’s simpler than ever to read and identify healthful choices at a quick glance. Many food brands have already made these changes and you will continue to see more roll-out through the FDA’s 2021 deadline. 

    Nutrition Label Changes from the FDA

    Image Credit: Food and Drug Administration

    • Larger, Bolder Font A visual improvement over the old listing.  
    • Servings Per Package – Some over-sized packages (read: chips and soda) may feel like a single-serve portion but really contain three or four servings. This new requirement helps you recognize what your intake would be if you consumed the whole package. 
    • Serving Sizes Single portions will now represent a more realistic quantity that people actually consume in one serving, as opposed to a portion size that a food manufacturer may have selected for other reasons, such as listing calorie levels that look more desirable.  
    • Added Sugars The requirement for added sugars will show you the natural carbohydrate content in a food versus the carbohydrate content from added sugar. For example, there are 12 grams of carbohydrates in 8 ounces of low-fat milk which comes entirely from the natural sugar present in milk called lactose. The same serving size of chocolate-flavored milk may have 18 grams of carbohydrates, 6 of which are added sugar. 

    Using Nutrition Labels to Track Your Food Intake 

    There are many calculators and apps that can help you track your dietary intake (you can read recommendations on mobile apps to try here!), but some prefer manually recording food intake, which makes understanding and using the Nutrition Facts Panel even more important. Using measuring devices such as food scales and measuring cups will help keep you honest with your portions and will improve your accuracy and achievement of your dietary goals. 

    The bottom-line is if you’re trying to make significant change in your eating habits or you have committed to a keto lifestyle, you should understand how to read a label, as it can make all the difference in achieving your dietary goals.

    For more detailed information on label reading, one reference you might want to check out is Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label To Table (Second Edition, 2017, Amazon Digital Services LLC) by Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN. 

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    Nutrition Label How to Read Guide

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