Reading a Nutrition Label, Part I

Photo by Alyssa Llamas

Heart Healthy Honey O’s, Diet friendly Special K, oh my! When you walk down the grocery aisle, food products scream things like: “LOW FAT”, “LOW SODIUM”, “PROMOTES HEALTHY HEART”. But what really qualifies as “LOW FAT” or “LOW SODIUM” and what do they mean for your health?

Most people are only familiar with three aspects of a nutrition label: fat, calories and carbohydrates, as all those diets out there tell you to focus on how much you should be eating of each. So to truly know what is good for you to eat, turn the box over to the nutrition label and let’s start from the top.

Serving Size
At the very top of the label, right underneath NUTRITION FACTS you will find SERVING SIZE, which is the amount of the product that is normally served. Serving size is usually listed in measurements like cups, grams, ounces, etc. This allows you to compare nutrition facts between other products. By looking at SERVING SIZE, I can basically say “OK 1/2 a cup of cereal A has 125 calories whereas 1/2 a cup of cereal B has 200 calories”.

If there is anything to remember on the nutrition label, it’s SERVINGS PER CONTAINER. This tells you exactly what it sounds like, how many servings there are in the container. As most people don’t carry around measuring cups with them nor eats exactly one serving size, the best way to find out how much you are eating is to estimate. For example, I have a box of macaroni and cheese (see the nutrition label below), there are 3 servings in this box, and so if I eat about half of what I made, that’s roughly 1 1/2 servings (3 x 1/2 = 1 1/2). So by simply multiplying everything by 1 1/2, I can figure out what I am actually putting in my body. In this case I am consuming 18 grams of fat, 30 milligrams of cholesterol, etc.

Now if I was going to eat that entire box of macaroni and cheese, in which there are 3 servings, I would multiply everything by 3.  So for the entire box, I would be eating 36 grams of fat, 60 milligrams of cholesterol and so on.

image source: Kraft

Moving on down the label, the next thing you see is CALORIES. Calories are a measurement of energy, so the label is telling you how much energy you are getting from this food. Most people should consume 2000 calories a day, but this varies, depending on your sex, age, and level of physical activity. For more guidelines on caloric intake see chapter 2, page 14 of this USDA document, but be sure to talk to your doctor before changing your diet.

As a general guide, calorie rankings are as follows:

  • 40 calories = LOW
  • 100 calories = Moderate
  • 400 calories = HIGH

CALORIES FROM FAT tells you what it sounds like, how many calories are coming from fat. If you’re eating something where it’s calories from fat are half of the calories, it’s probably not the best nutritional choice you can make, since half of whatever you’re eating is fat!

Back to the mac n’ cheese example, if you ate that whole box you would consume 1,080 calories, of which 330 comes from fat. That means eating that 1 box of mac and cheese is HALF of your daily calorie intake! So imagine this, would you rather eat one thing that has 1080 calories or 4 things, that can add up to 1080? Spend your calories wisely and watch out for EMPTY CALORIES! Empty calories are found in things that have low nutritional value and don’t make you full, like soda and candy. So think of calories as a bank; you’re given $2,000 a day to live off of. How would you spend it? Would you spend it on things that aren’t going to make you full or give you the nutrients you need?

Check in next month for information on fat and cholesterol. In the meantime, check out the Food and Drug Administration’s guide on nutrition facts. Curious about your foods? You can check the manufacturer’s website online, like I did for mac n’ cheese, to find nutrition labels for your favorite foods.


2 responses to “Reading a Nutrition Label, Part I

  1. Pingback: Reading a Nutrition Label Part I | getPHYT | Fresh Green World·

  2. Pingback: Sodium: Put that Salt Shaker Down! | getPHYT·

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