Grocery Shopping Guide: Nutrition Labels
What is a Nutrition Label? Where is It Found?
Nutrition Facts Labels are labels that are filled with information that can help us understand the content of the food and that can help us make better/healthier choices. These labels can be found on the back, front, or on the side of the package. (1) Packed with many words and symbols people do not understand the meaning of, Nutrition Facts Labels can often be seen as hieroglyphs rather than straightforward information created to help us.
What is shown on the label?
Nutrition Facts Labels have different segments/sections:
- Servings per container
- Serving Size
- % Daily Value
- Vitamins and minerals
Prior to 1990, Nutrition Facts Labels were not always required on packaged foods and beverages. The U.S. Nutrition Facts Label was mandated in 1990 and was first seen in 1994. (2) As science and technology evolved, so did the label. In 2016, the Nutrition Facts Label was revised, and manufacturers were required to update their packaging (by January 1, 2020).
The side-by-side comparison of the new vs. the old label can be seen by clicking on this link. (https://www.fda.gov/media/97999/download)
Variations in Design (3)
There are a couple of different formats. While most packages use the general format, which is also known as the standard label, some packages that are small and that do not have enough space might use the linear format. A simplified format is used when a certain food/product does not have a significant amount of nutrients. This format includes only the “core” nutrients - calories, total fat, total carbohydrate, protein, and sodium. Last but not least, certain packaging uses the dual column label format, which shows the amount of calories and nutrients people consume “per serving” and “per package”.
Servings Per Container
Servings per container represent the number of servings that are found in the container/package.
Serving size represents the amount of food people usually eat or drink. Serving sizes have been updated to reflect the current consumption habits (how much people actually consume today). With that being said, it is important to note that a serving size is NOT a recommendation of how much food or beverage you should be consuming. (4)
Serving sizes use units such as 1 cup, 2 tablespoons (tbsp), 4 ounces (oz), etc. They are further described in the parentheses: the number of grams describes how much food (in grams) is in one serving.
Serving size and the number of “servings per container” are now (the revised label) written in a larger and bolder font. (3)
Tracking calories has become a trend and a very well-known tactic to lose weight. Calories represent the energy we get from food. (3) The number of calories your body needs depends on your age, weight, height, gender, and physical activity. Many people find this number very significant, because it is known that eating too many calories can lead to weight gain. By monitoring their calorie intake, many people succeed in losing, gaining, or maintaining weight.
Calories are now (the revised label) written in a larger and bolder font. (3)
% (percent) Daily Value
The % (percent) Daily Value represents the contribution (in %) of one serving of a nutrient to an approximate daily requirement for that specific nutrient. (4) There are 2 important things to remember when it comes to % Daily Value:
- ≤5% DV per serving = low
- ≥20% DV per serving = high
Nutrients are substances in food that contribute to health, provide energy, etc. They include fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water. Nutrient-dense foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and are typically low in calories. Calorie-dense foods are foods that are usually high in calories but low in nutrients. These are also referred to as “empty calories”. (5)
Although “Calories from Fat” has been removed (because the type of fat is more important than the amount), three types of fat are still shown on the Nutrition Facts Label:
- Total fat - refers to the total amount of fat in one serving of food
- Trans fat - usually found in hydrogenated oils (check your peanut butter!!); FDA considers trans fats unhealthy because they are directly linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease;
*NOTE - if a food has <0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the trans fat does not have to be listed on the label; this does not mean that there is no trans fat but that it is hidden; excessive consumption of hidden fat can add up (7)
- Saturated fat - should be limited as research has shown that an excessive amount can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease
- Cholesterol - a waxy, fat-like substance; foods high in cholesterol are typically high in saturated fat, which is why cholesterol intake should be limited (8)
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (healthy fats) can be voluntarily listed on the Nutrition Facts Label.
The Nutrition Facts Label includes the amount per serving of dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars. Sugar alcohols, soluble dietary fiber, and insoluble dietary fiber can be voluntarily listed on the nutrition facts label.
- Dietary Fiber - considered a “nutrient of public health concern” as many Americans do not consume enough of it
- Total Sugars - includes both natural and added sugars
- Added sugars - these are the sugars and sweeteners that are added during food processing (for more read our article about sugars!! (hyperlink the sugar blog post)); this is an example of a nutrient we should get less of due to the fact that it is associated with various health issues;
- Sugar alcohols - required to be on the Nutrition Facts Label if the package contains a statement regarding health effects of sugar alcohols or sugars (10)
The Nutrition Facts Label includes the amount of protein (in grams) per serving of the food. However, the % daily value for protein is not required. Two cases in which the % daily value is required:
- If intended for infants and children (<4 years old)
- If the claim has been made about it (“high in protein”)
Vitamins and Minerals (2)
Nutrition Facts Label requires four vitamins and minerals to be listed:
- Vitamin D
The old Nutrition Facts Label had vitamins A and C listed. However, these two vitamins have been swapped with vitamin D and potassium because many Americans are deficient in these micronutrients. While vitamin A and C are no longer required they can still be voluntarily listed on the Nutrition Facts Label.
Sodium is a mineral that is often seen as a synonym for salt (sodium chloride). However, it is important to note that these two terms do not have the same meaning. Sodium chloride (salt) is a compound that contains sodium (element).
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, although an essential nutrient, sodium is only needed in small amounts - less than 2,300 mg per day, which is equal to about 1 teaspoon of salt.
Did You Know?
- Ingredients on the Nutrition Facts Label are listed based on the amount of the ingredient used. The ones at the beginning of the list are used in the greatest amount while the ones close to the bottom are used in smaller amounts. (3)
- Calories on Nutrition Facts Labels do not always add up and are not 100% accurate. This is because the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) allows a margin of error up to 20%. (13)
- About 11% of sodium comes from salt that we add when we are cooking and consuming the food, while over 70% comes from packaged and prepared food. (12)
- Because sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed by the body, foods that contain sorbitol or mannitol must include the "excess consumption may have a laxative effect" warning on their label. (10)
- According to the FDA, foods that contain <5 calories can be listed as zero-calorie foods. Next time you are using Pam (cooking oil spray) be aware that there are 500 servings in the bottle, which means the entire bottle can have almost 1,ooo calories. (14)