The Nutrition Facts label is on the side of most packaged foods. It’s often found close to the ingredient listing.
The purpose of it is to help consumers make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, they should be able to eat better, right?
In fact, the Canadian Food Guide recommends the following behaviors for healthier eating:
- Be mindful of your eating habits
- Cook more often
- Enjoy your food
- Eat meals with others
- Use food labels
- Be aware of food marketing
Whether you like the Nutrition Facts label or not, it’s a valuable tool to help you make better choices when shopping and choosing foods.
Here’s my four-step crash course on reading the Nutrition Facts label.
Step 1: Serving Size
The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts label is to note the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. So, it’s tricky.
All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.
In Canada and the US, dietary guidelines are updated every 5 years. With this last update, serving sizes became more consistent between similar foods to make it easier to compare foods. The new labels were also supposed to have more realistic serving sizes to reflect the amount that people eat in one sitting, and not be artificially small. This isn’t always the case.
As an example, I was strolling the bakery section of the grocery store and chose a cookie sandwich. The cookie was normal sized, less than 3″ in diameter. The label said the small dessert was 400 calories per serving. Yup, per serving! I read the label again: the cookie sandwich yielded 2 servings. I don’t know anyone who is going to split a 3″ cookie.
Moral of the story: always read the fine print.
Let’s use another example – plain, unsalted walnuts from Costco.
As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30 g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.
FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts).
Step 2: % Daily Value
The % Daily Value (%DV) is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. Ideally, you will get 100% DV for each nutrient every day. This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day.
NOTE: Since children are smaller and have different nutritional needs if a type of food is intended solely for children under the age of 4, then those foods use a child’s average nutrition needs for the %DV.
The %DV is a guideline, not a rigid rule.
You don’t need to add all of your %DV up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot.
NOTE: Not every nutrient has a %DV. If something is missing, it’s because there isn’t an agreed “official” %DV for that nutrient. Protein is one example. The good news is that the new Nutrition Facts table includes a %DV for sugar.
Step 3: Middle of the table
(e.g. Calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, and protein.)
Calories are pretty straight forward. In the nutrition label above, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts has 200 calories.
Fat is bolded for a reason. That 19 g of fat (29% DV) is total fat. That includes the non-bolded items underneath it. Here, 19 g of total fat includes 1.5 g saturated fat, (19 g – 1.5 g = 17.5 g) unsaturated fat, and 0 g trans fat. (Yes, unsaturated fats including mono- and poly-unsaturated are not on the label, so you need to do a quick subtraction).
Cholesterol, sodium, and potassium are all measured in mg. Ideally, aim for around 100% of potassium and sodium each day. It’s easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made, restaurant foods, or snacks. Keep an eye on this number if sodium can be a problem for you (e.g. if your doctor mentioned it, if you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, etc.).
Carbohydrate, like fat, is bolded because it is total carbohydrates. It includes the non-bolded items underneath it like fiber, sugar, and starch (not shown). Here, 30 g of walnuts contain 3 g of carbohydrates; that 3 g are all fiber. There is no sugar or starch. And as you can see, 3 g of fiber is 12% of your daily value for fiber.
Proteins, like calories, are pretty straight forward as well. Here, a ¼ cup (30 g) of walnuts contains 5 g of protein.
Step 4: Bottom of the table
(e.g. vitamins & minerals)
The vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. The new labels will list potassium, calcium, and iron. Yes, potassium will drop from the middle of the table to the bottom, and both vitamins A & C will become optional
Manufacturers can add other vitamins and minerals to the bottom of their Nutrition Facts table (this is optional). And you’ll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others do.
I hope this crash course in the Nutrition Facts table was helpful.
Do you have questions about it? If so, leave me a comment below.
Recipe: Walnut Stuffed Dates
8 walnut halves
4 dates, pitted
Make a “date sandwich” by squeezing each date between two walnut halves.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Try with pecans instead.
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