Understanding Food & Nutrition Labels

The labels you see on the foods you buy are meant to help you make more informed choices about what you put on your table and into your body. But all the names, numbers, and ingredients you find on food and nutrition labels can often lead to more confusion than understanding.

So how do you take what you see and turn it into what you know? With this handy guide, of course! Here are some simple definitions and descriptions to help you become a nutrition label sage and savvier food consumer.

Food Labels

Food labels tell us more about the food we’re buying and eating. These are some of the key terms you’ll read on food labels and what they really mean.

  1. Gluten-free

Gluten-free products are those that contain no gluten and are considered safe to consume by those with gluten intolerances or those who want to avoid it.

  1. Organic

To earn the organic label, foods and products must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients. The remaining ingredients must be on the national approved list provided by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Organic products can’t be made using ingredients produced with antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.

  1. Vegan

Vegan products are those that do not contain any animal ingredients (meat, eggs, dairy products) or any ingredient derived from animals.

  1. Non-GMO

For a product to have the Non-GMO label, the crops used to create the product cannot have been modified in a lab to make them resistant to herbicides and/or produce an insecticide. Simply put, they are foods that haven’t been genetically modified in any way.

  1. Free-range

A free-range label means that the animals must be allowed to move freely over a large area of open land. These animals shouldn’t be locked away or contained.

  1. Grass-fed

Meat labeled grass-fed means the animal must have been primarily raised on ranges and eaten only grasses and forages for the length of its life, rather than in a feedlot. It does not mean the animal wasn’t contained unless it also has the “free-range” label.

  1. Kosher

For a product to be considered Kosher, it must conform to the Jewish religious dietary law. Any animal species must be slaughtered using a method in which the animal is rendered unconscious. Death then occurs almost instantly and the animal doesn’t suffer during the slaughter. This method is called “Shochet.”

  1. All-natural or 100% natural ingredients

This label can deceive people. While foods can have an all-natural, or 100% natural ingredients label, they can still contain growth hormones, antibiotics or other harmful chemicals.

Nutrition Labels

Nutrition labels let us know about the dietary impact of the foods we’re consuming. Here are some of the terms you’ll find on your typical label and how to interpret them.

  1. Serving Information

When you first look at the Nutrition Facts label, find the total number of servings (shown as servings per container) and the serving size. Serving sizes are first provided in familiar units that people typically eat at one time, such as cups, ounces or pieces. You are then given the specific metric amount (e.g., the number of grams (g)). It’s important to note that all the nutrient amounts shown on the label (calories included) are related to a single serving size.

  1. Calories

Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of the food in the package you’re reading. For example, if there are 100 calories in one serving of a drink, you get 100 units of energy from that serving. If you drink the whole bottle containing 4 servings, you’d be consuming 400 calories. The general guideline for most adults is 2,000 calories per day. Depending on your age, sex, height, weight, and activity level, you may need more or less calories.

  1. Nutrients

The label’s nutrient section shows you the nutrients you’ll be getting by consuming that product. You can use the label to seek out foods containing more of the nutrients you want (vitamins and minerals) and less of those you may want to limit (saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars).

  1. The Percent Daily Value (DV)

The % Daily Value (DV) is the percentage of the daily value of each nutrient your body needs that a serving of that food will provide. Daily Values are average levels of nutrients based on a person who eats 2,000 calories a day. It also helps you determine if a serving is high or low in a nutrient. (5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low, while 20% DV or more is considered high).

Five Ingredients to Watch Out For

The ingredient list must contain every single ingredient present in your food product, in order of greatest to least. Here are 5 ingredients to watch out for when making food choices.

  1. Hydrogenated Oils

Partially hydrogenated oil (or trans fats) have now been outlawed in the US. However, many manufacturers are turning to fully hydrogenated oils instead. These oils are a source of saturated fat and can impact cholesterol levels and inflammation in the body. These types of fat are largely found in highly processed foods, foods that should be limited due to their low nutritional value.

  1. Sodium Benzoate

Sodium benzoate is a preservative found in many processed foods. It’s been shown to increase inflammation, obesity, oxidative stress, and allergic reactions. It also likely becomes carcinogenic when combined with higher levels of vitamin C.

  1. High Fructose Corn Syrup

High fructose corn syrup contributes to inflammation, increased cholesterol and triglycerides, and fatty liver. It also increases appetite and obesity.

  1. Other Added Sugars and Refined Flours

In excess, added sugars contribute to inflammation, high blood pressure, weight gain, and fatty liver. Added sugars in any form are bad if consumed in excess. This includes sugars like honey and unrefined cane sugar or coconut sugar, which some people believe are less harmful. Diets high in refined grain products, like white bread, pasta, cracker, and baked goods, have been linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

  1. Carrageenan

Carrageenan is a food additive used to help with thickening and emulsifying foods. It has been linked to IBS, inflammation, colon cancer, and glucose intolerance. Foods that are labeled organic can no longer contain carrageenan. But other foods can.

Making more informed choices about the food you eat is one of the best things you can do for your long-term health and reading and understanding food labels is a great way to do it. So, use the information you find there to your advantage and start eating and living healthier today. To learn more about healthy eating schedule an appointment with one of our dietitians.

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