Proven Tips For Reading Nutrition Labels

Americans are increasingly more health-conscious, insisting on healthier foods in the grocery store and better reporting of product ingredients.

But even as we’re demanding changes to our food supply, many among us still struggle with understanding exactly what’s in each and every package on the store shelves. This is where carefully reading nutrition labels can make a huge difference.

Before you head out to your next grocery-shopping trip, arm yourself with these tips for reading labels:

Flip the food. The front of any sort of food package is meant to attract your attention and nothing more. Although it may make huge health claims, a package front is only a marketing piece. So, before you assume that what you’re grabbing from the shelf is really healthy, flip the box, bag or can until you find the FDA’s “Nutrition Facts” label.

Pay attention to portions. Not all portions are created equally. When you’re comparing two products side-by-side, make sure to check the serving size on the label. Sometimes companies will change their portion sizes to make a product look healthier in comparison to the competition, even when it’s not.

Figuring out fats. Fats get a bad rap, but they’re actually important for a healthy body. The trick is to eat more good fats and minimize your bad fats. Saturated fats and trans fats are the main culprits for raising LDL cholesterol in the blood and increasing your risk of heart disease. Fat can be a great source of energy, especially for kids, as long as you minimize trans fats and saturated fats. Depending on your age and gender, fat intake should be anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of your total diet.

Counting carbs. Many fad diets preach the evils of carbohydrates, but the truth is that these important macronutrients are vital to your day-to-day functioning. However, not all carbohydrates are made the same. The Nutrition Facts label on your food will tell you exactly how many carbohydrates are in a serving, broken down into the categories “Dietary Fiber” and “Sugar.” Too many sugars can be problematic, but fiber is your friend. Aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber each day and limit your added sugars to less than 10 percent of your total intake.

Packing in protein. Proteins are building blocks that your body uses to create and repair tissues, especially in growing kids. As we grow, we need more of them to keep up with our increasing size, which is why toddlers might only need around 13 grams of protein each day, but adult men need as much as 56 grams. When choosing protein-packed food, keep an eye on fat content, too.

Monitoring your Daily Value. The FDA created a tool to help you better decide what foods to put into your shopping cart and which to leave out. On the Nutrition Facts panel, there’s a column labeled “% Daily Value.” This column is exactly what you’d think it would be — shorthand to help you build a well-rounded meal. Any nutrient that’s five percent or less of your daily value per serving can be labeled as “low;” nutrients that are 20 percent or more are “high.” For example, food that’s labeled “low in fat, high in fiber,” should provide less than five percent of your daily value of fat and over twenty percent of your daily value of fiber.

Investigate the ingredients. The best way to get to the bottom of your food’s contents is to check out the list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order by the amount that a food item contains. Whatever contributes the bulk of the weight is listed first; the smallest contributor is listed last. Although you should be able to recognize most of the ingredients on the ingredient list, chemical names don’t automatically make a food unhealthy. Many foods are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals that might not be as easily recognized as more familiar ingredients.

Developing a habit of reading labels on food can make your grocery trip take a little longer, but by paying close attention to what you’re buying, you ensure that you’re also paying better attention to what you put into your family. Healthy habits start with you, so make sure to show your children how to read Nutrition Facts labels, too.