How much of your food comes with a food label? For most Americans, eating on the go has become a part of the daily routine. The switch from homemade food to prepackaged means that we don’t really know what has gone into our food without checking the labels. Unfortunately, food labels are not the easiest to understand at first glance. Food labels have been in the press more in recent months, as the FDA is planning changes that are designed to make understanding labels easier for consumers.
Until this happens, here’s a quick guide to the current FDA guidelines, to help you make healthier choices when grabbing prepackaged foods.
Noting the serving size that the label refers to is of huge importance, as some brands may list a smaller serving size than what you are actually serving yourself. Take note of the total servings a packet contains and divide it up into equal portions so you truly know what the recommended serving size is.
It’s important to be mindful of calories in snacks, as snacking can often contribute a lot to your daily overall intake, and they tend to be calories that we do not eat mindfully. There can be an emphasis on low-calorie products, to help with weight maintenance, however, it may be useful to think of what the food contributes to your overall daily intake. For example, a 200-calorie snack bar which is low in protein and fiber may not fill you up, and you may end up overcompensating later on because you are still hungry. In contrast, a 300-calorie snack that has protein, fiber, and healthy fats will be more nutritious and keep you going for longer, making it less likely that you will need more snacks.
Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fats & Cholesterol
Total fat content remains listed on labels, even though the latest dietary guidelines removed the recommendation to limit total fat. We need fat to be healthy, however, the type of fat is important. Dietary guidelines recommend limiting calories from saturated fat to between 7 % and 10% of your daily calorie intake.
You’ll notice that there is a percentage of your daily value figure on the label, to help you work this out. This is based on a 2000 calorie diet per day, if you are smaller and less physically active, you may need fewer calories than this to maintain a healthy weight.
Cholesterol is a type of fat found primarily in animal foods such as eggs, meats, dairy, and shellfish
Trans fats should be avoided altogether, as they increase unhealthy cholesterol, and decrease good cholesterol. Trans fats are most commonly found in highly processed foods such as cookies, cakes, and other baked goods along with frozen foods like pizza and in coffee creamers, among others.
Dietary guidelines recommend that Americans limit total sodium intake to less than 2300 milligrams. High sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. Most of the sodium we eat daily comes from highly processed foods, including chips, cookies, canned goods, frozen prepared meals, candy, breads, yogurts, and so many more processed foods.
Carbohydrates play an important role in energy production and are the preferred energy source for our brains. It is important, however, that we get carbohydrates from healthy sources. To assess this, look at the fiber and total sugar content listed on the label.
For a normal, healthy diet, aim for higher fiber foods (minimum 25-30 grams per day), as they help to keep the bowel healthy and help reduce the risk of chronic diseases. When comparing foods, choose foods with a higher % Daily Value of dietary fiber to help you reach 100% of the Daily Value for dietary fiber on most days. Any food which provides 20% DV or more of dietary fiber per serving is high fiber, so choose these options.
Sugar on food labels is also important to note. We should limit the amount of added sugars in our food. According to the American Heart Association, we should limit our intake of added sugars to 25 grams for women and 36 grams for men per day. The new FDA labels will list the amount of added sugar a food contains, to make choosing healthier options easier. Don’t forget that sugar is often called other things-generally, any ingredients ending in “ose” (for example dextrose, fructose), or any syrups are sugars. Get more information on types of sugar >>
Foods with a higher protein content tend to help fill you up, so picking a high protein snack is a good way of staving off hunger between meals. The 5/20 rule is a great way to look to see if a product is a good source of protein or any other nutrient on the nutrition facts label. If it is 5% or less, it is not a great source of protein. If it is 20% or more is will be a good source of protein.
Calcium, Iron, Vitamins A & C
These vitamins are listed on food labels as historically they have been nutrients which many Americans were lacking. These nutrients can generally be provided in sufficient quantities by a balanced diet. The new dietary label lists vitamin D and potassium in place of vitamins A and C.
Learning to use food labels requires some effort, but it’s something that pays off in the long run. Once you know which products are healthier, your shopping will become faster, and maintaining a healthy diet will be easier than ever.