Reading Food Labels
Content by: Jamie Rinaldi, RD, MS in Applied Physiology & Nutrition
Food consumption begins at the grocery store! The more you understand about what's inside the food you are eating, the better choices you can make. Use this slideshow to help you decipher food labels, and the download as a cheat sheet for all those sneaky nutrition terms at the grocery store.
The Nutrition Facts label was updated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2016 based on recent nutritional research and input from consumers. All food products that are required to list nutritional information were mandated to update their labels by July 1st of 2021. The reformed label is easier to read and enables consumers to make more healthful food choices.
The serving size now more closely reflects the amount people actually eat and drink. A larger, bold font alerts consumers of a standard serving size. Calories are also in the larger, bold print, highlighting their importance in making decisions about what to purchase and consume.
Calories from fat have been omitted, as studies suggest the types of fat consumed are more influential from a health perspective than the amount of fat. Total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat continue to be included on the label. Although the FDA has banned the use of commercially produced trans fat in food, it still occurs naturally in some animal-derived foods since it is formed by bacteria in the stomachs of sheep, goats, and cattle. Studies on dietary fat are not black and white, however the most highly regarded health organizations in the United States recommend limiting saturated fat and avoiding trans fat when possible.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, advise limiting the consumption of added sugars, since they widely contribute to excessive calorie intake. Likewise, added sugars are now a part of the Nutrition Facts label. The exceptions to this rule are sugars and syrups that only have one ingredient - a type of sugar - yet they still must disclose what the Percent Daily Value (%DV) for added sugars is for a serving of the product.
The micronutrients included on the Nutrition Facts label have been modified to emphasize those which are most commonly deficient in people’s diets. Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium are listed, while vitamins A and C have been removed. Of course, food manufacturers may still voluntarily note nutrients that aren’t necessary to include.
NOTE: The following footnote on nutritional data has been rewritten to more clearly explain the %DV. The purpose of the %DV is to show consumers how a serving of different foods fits into the context of total daily consumption and continues to base the amounts on a 2000-calorie diet.
1. The nutritional information is based on one serving size, so zone in on what that is! It may be more or less that one would actually consume.
2. Keep in mind one’s health status and goals when determining what nutrients are most important to consume and which may be detrimental.
3. Read the ingredients! Just because a food item is low calorie and high fiber does not earn it a nutrition halo. Many “health” foods contain unsavory artificial ingredients best to avoid.
4. Pay attention to nutrient, health, and other claims advertised on food labels.
Download the Nutrition Terms Cheat Sheet in our companion posting above, which contains an illustration of the Nutrition Facts label and definitions for nutrition claims.