Did you know that the Nutrition Facts label has only been required on food and beverage packaging in the U.S. since 1990? This information can help us make healthier choices, but at first glance it might look a little confusing. To help us better understand the label, let’s break it down.
First up: serving size. Serving sizes are set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration based on the average amount of a food or beverage that people typically consume, and they’re used to calculate the information displayed on Nutrition Facts labels. Serving sizes are not a recommendation on how much we should eat – that decision is up to you. If you eat more or less than the serving size that’s listed, your calorie and nutrient intake will change accordingly.
Next is the calories line, which tells us how many calories are in each serving.
The rest of the label highlights the amounts of key macronutrients and micronutrients found in each serving. There’s a lot to look at here, so let’s focus on the need-to-knows. Eating too much saturated fat, sodium and added sugars is associated with adverse health effects, so we generally want to eat less of them. Note that the Total Sugars line accounts for all sugars in a serving – including both natural and added sugars. The Added Sugars line only lists sugars that were added while making the product.
On the flip side, dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium are nutrients we should try to get more of, for various reasons. For example, diets high in fiber can improve bowel function, may lower blood glucose, or support healthy cholesterol levels. Consuming more vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium can reduce risk of conditions like osteoporosis, anemia and hypertension.
Finally, let’s look at the percent Daily Value. The % DV tells us how much of a nutrient in one serving contributes to our daily dietary needs. In general, remember the 5/20 rule: if you see that a food or beverage contains 5% DV or less of a nutrient, it is considered low in that nutrient. If it has 20% DV or more, it is considered high. For the most part, we should choose products with higher %DVs in the nutrients to get more of, and lower %DVs in the nutrients to get less of. Some nutrients, like protein, trans fat and total sugars, don’t have a %DV, so use the number of grams to compare and choose foods.
Okay, let’s bring it all together. Each part of the Nutrition Facts label helps us better understand what’s in the foods or beverages we choose. It can be a quick reference on everything from calories to nutrient content, helping us compare between foods and make more informed decisions on what to eat.