How to Read a Nutrition Label
What you don't notice on nutrition labels can hurt you
By Leanna Skarnulis
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD
Remember being a kid and tearing open the cereal box to get the special decoder ring? Today's cereals should come with a ring you can use to crack the code of their nutrition labels. For those who understand its secrets, the nutrition label holds valuable information for winning the war on fat. Since there is no special ring, we'll give you the skinny on reading nutrition labels.
Beware of the Front Label Tease
"Heart Healthy!" "Enriched With Calcium and Vitamins!" "Low fat!" The front label is where manufacturers can say whatever they want. But when you look at the nutrition facts on the back you might wonder if the two labels refer to the same product. "Speed read the front label and go straight to the nutrition facts," says Kerry McLeod, author of The Last Diet Book Standing. She tells WebMD why the following front label terms should be red flags:
The Nutrition Facts Label
Start your label reading adventure by looking at the "serving size" printed right under "nutrition facts." Portion control is an important part of weight management, but don't expect food manufacturers to make it easy for you. Pop-Tarts, for instance, come two to a package. The label says one serving is 200 calories. The catch is that's for "one pastry."
Label reading is easy when a package states there are one or two servings. It's the fractions that will send you to the calculator. For example, the label on a 6-ounce can of StarKist Tuna in water says one serving is 2 ounces (drained) so you might think the can holds three servings. But because you drain off some weight, the can actually contains 2.5 servings.
And how realistic are those printed serving sizes anyway? The South Beach diet recipe for South Beach Chopped Salad With Tuna calls for a 6-ounce can of water-packed tuna, and that's for a single serving of salad.
Calories and Calories From Fat
Next you'll see how many calories are in a serving and how many of those calories come from fat. A 2-ounce serving of tuna has 60 calories, 5 of which come from fat. If you eat the whole can, multiply these amounts by 2.5 for a total of 150 calories and 12.5 fat grams.
Nutrients by Weight and Percentage of Daily Value (%DV)
If you're counting fat or carbohydrate grams, you're familiar with this part of the label. It shows how much of each nutrient is in a single serving by weight in grams and by %DV. This symbol refers to the recommended daily allowance for a nutrient based on a 2,000-calorie diet (you'll see that some nutrients, such as sugar and protein, don't have a %DV). Fats are listed as "Total Fat" and also broken down so you can see how much is saturated fat, i.e., the kind you especially want to limit. Unfortunately, the label doesn't distinguish between natural sugars, such as those found in fruit, and added sugar. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition says the first nutrients listed on the label --total fat, cholesterol, and sodium -- are the ones most Americans get enough of or too much of in their diets. And one of the most overlooked nutrients essential for good health is fiber.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are listed by %DV only. Pay particular attention to vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. They're listed first. The FDA says most Americans don't get enough in their diets.
Ingredients are listed in order from the greatest amount to the least. Just how much of a "fruit breakfast bar" is fruit? McLeod advises leaving the product on the shelf if the terms "enriched wheat flour" or "sugar" appear before "fruit." She also offers this rule of thumb: the fewer the ingredients, the better. "If there's a long list of scary ingredients you can't pronounce, you might want to put it back." Some labels also show you the total recommended daily allowances of nutrients for a 2,000-calorie diet.
Get the latest health and medical information delivered direct to your inbox FREE!