Those panels on the back or side or bottom of the food package. We’ve all seen them. The print is so tiny, and the information is packed in so closely together, how many of us just glaze over and don’t really pay attention? I do sometimes.
Here’s the quick and dirty explanation of those pesky nutrition labels.
Let’s work with some cereal I just bought this afternoon.
Okay, ready? Here we go! Wait, wait… this is too big and too overwhelming to look at all at once. Let’s break it down, top to bottom.
Phew! Bite-sized pieces, so to speak.
Okay, the first part on the label is probably the most important part. (Good thing they put it at the top!) This is what tells you how big one serving is, how many you can expect to get out of the whole package, and how many calories are in this food.
For my Fiber One cereal, one serving is 1 cup of cereal, and there are around 8 servings in the box.
The next part talks about the nutritional value of each serving of the cereal, not what’s in the entire box. This cereal has 180 calories in 1 cup. So if I just fill up my bowl in the morning without measuring, I’m probably going to eat more than 1 cup. My bowls hold a cup and a half pretty easily, and I know some of you have bigger bowls than I do!
This is also where you can check out the amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrate, and protein that are in each serving. In general, we should all be limiting our intake of fat, cholesterol, sodium, and potassium. I’ll leave the carbohydrate and protein instructions to the nutritionists. And your physicians. The amount (in grams; 1 g = 1000 milligrams, or mg) of each of these nutrients is listed next to the nutrient, along with the percent Daily Value.
The percent Daily Values are based on the recommendations for a 2,000 calorie a day diet. In other words, if you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, one cup of this cereal will give you about % of the sodium you should be eating in one day.
If you are eating more than 2,000 calories in a day, the percent of your Daily Value of sodium that you get from eating 1 cup of this cereal will be lower than 9% (more total calories/food, means less of the total amount is from this one food). If you’re eating less than 2,000 calories a day, the percent Daily Value of sodium that you get will be higher than 9% (more total calories/food, means more of the total amount is from this food). These are only guidelines. Use them to help you judge how much of any of these nutrients you are eating, but only as a guideline.
Then we get to look at the amount of vitamins and minerals that are in each serving of cereal. These aren’t listed by the total amount of each vitamin, just by the percent Daily Value. So 1 cup of this cereal has around 10% of the total amount of vitamin C you should be eating in a day.
Did you notice the * and the ** on the label in the Nutritional Values section? They direct you to a spot lower on the label. The * gives you the grams (or milligrams) of each nutrient that you’ll be eating if you have 1/2 cup of skim milk with your cereal. (The percent Daily Values were given for plain cereal, and for cereal with 1/2 cup skim milk.)
The ** gives a brief description of what the percent Daily Values mean. But we already covered that.
Last but not least, the ingredient list! The ingredients are listed from the most (by weight) to the least (by weight). This cereal has whole grain wheat, sugar, corn bran, whole grain oats, and corn starch as its top 5 ingredients. Typically, the top 5 make up the most of the food.
Then at the bottom there’s a disclaimer about what allergens are in this cereal. It contains wheat and almonds. (I would hope it contains almonds, it’s called Nutty Clusters and Almonds! Although there’s no other nuts on the ingredient list, so I’m guessing the “nuttiness” of the clusters is from the almonds, too.)
Okay, that was a lot of information packed into a small space on the nutrition label. Check the labels on your favorite foods. Are you eating more than one serving at a time? I know I’ve been surprised to see the serving sizes on some packages.
Have you seen something else on a nutrition label that has confused you? Let me know!
And if you just can’t wait for more information, the Food and Drug Administration has a page with more details about what these nutrition labels mean.