Your Labels + Why They Matter

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Step inside the world of food labeling regulation, and you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of highly detailed information that is the result of years of questions from consumers, the food industry, and food scientists about what’s important for people to know.  How much vitamin A do people need?  Are most people getting enough?  How can we identify foods that are high in certain vitamins and minerals, and what is the bar for “high” anyway?  What’s a standard serving size – how much the food manufacturer says it should be, or what a person would normally eat in a sitting?  Asking one question will likely lead to many more, and personally I think it’s fascinating!  But, when you’re trying to make a decision about what snack to stock at work and there’s a line at checkout and a kid crying in your cart and you’ve just had a long day…well, you probably just want to make a good choice and get out of there!  So here are the basics of deciphering nutrition labels, highlighting the things I look for most.

Serving size
Sometimes it’s obvious – if you buy a box of granola bars, 1 bar is a serving.  But some things are trickier – beverages that you may drink in a sitting could have 2 or even 2.5 servings per container…please show me the person who’s going to save half a serving of something for the appropriate time to consume it!  This is one thing that will change with the new nutrition label (changes outlined here): serving size will be what people would typically eat in a sitting, so ice cream is going from ½ cup to 2/3 cup, and soda from 8oz to 12oz.  Serving size is important to note because everything else on the label under it pertains to ONE serving, not what the entire package contains.  

Macronutrients
Fat, protein, and carbohydrate (the calorie containing part of food) are all in the first section.  Types of fat (saturated, poly, mono, and trans fats) are all listed, as are types of carbohydrate, fiber and sugar (starch isn’t listed, but assume that’s whatever total carbohydrate minus fiber and sugar is).  My eye always goes to the fiber and protein – if it’s a food that is made with grains, nuts, or produce, there should be at least some fiber!  You can see that on this label, there’s virtually none, and 3g of protein isn’t an impressive amount.  I also like to look for a balance between fiber and sugar – fruit tends to have 3-4g of sugar for every 1 g of fiber, so aim for that ratio in snacks!  I don’t encourage people to avoid fat or look for low-fat products, but do look for a food to have at least some unsaturated fat…balance is key!

Micronutrients (vitamins & minerals)
There are dozens of micronutrients our bodies need, and only 4 on a nutrition label. These were originally targeted as the vitamins and minerals of highest concern for our country, but have shifted and the new labels will reflect that.  Now, we tend not to get enough potassium and many people are low in Vitamin D (that’s the one we can make up with sun exposure, and very few foods naturally contain Vitamin D, so I think that’s sort of silly but you can bet that more foods will be fortified with D!), while vitamins A and C will be removed as necessary to include.  

Ingredients
Often overlooked, this is where to find out what exactly is in the food you’re holding, in descending order by weight.  That is, the first ingredient listed is the thing that product is mostly made out of.  Recipes aren’t copyrightable, so if food companies told us exactly how much of each ingredient they were using, they’d be giving away their proprietary information!  So descending order by weight is what we get, and looking at the first 3-5 ingredients pretty much tells you what the bulk of the product is.  

Here’s where you can make some decisions – if you’re holding a grain product, the first word should be “whole.” If it’s “enriched” “fortified” “unbleached” or “bleached” and the word “whole” does not appear in the descriptors of that first ingredient, it’s not a whole grain product – even if the package says “wheat” “multigrain” “12 grain” or something like “honey wheat.”  Wheat is the plant, whole tells you that all parts of the grain (including the high fiber, high nutrient bran and germ) are included.  So these crackers don’t pass the test!  If you’re holding a nut product, the first ingredient should be nuts (lots of energy bars may have the word “nut” in the flavor or even brand, but have a sugar or sweetener as the first ingredient!).  Basically, if the front of the package makes you think an ingredient is prominent, it should be high on the list!

Further down, there could be lots of additives to help extend shelf life and improve texture, color, or flavor – these crackers have monosodium glutamate (MSG) and yeast extract to boost flavor, sodium phosphate for texture, some coloring agents, and citric acid as a preservative.  Fine to eat infrequently, but not a product I’d put into my weekly rotation!  Some whole grain wheat crackers (there are lots of triscuit-like options out there!) and real cheese would be a much better go-to snack from a protein, fiber, and ingredient perspective.  

Quick Reference Guide for Nutrition Label reading (of mixed ingredient foods)

  • 3+ g fiber for a snack, 8+ g fiber for a meal
  • A 4:1 or 3:1 sugar to fiber ratio
  • 6+ g protein for a snack, 20+ g protein for a meal
  • More than half unsaturated fat
  • Fewer ingredients that come from whole foods

Happy shopping, and remember to check that label!  Many foods try to trick you with front-of-package claims that make you think they’re wholesome…an organic, cholesterol-free, gluten-free cookie is still a cookie!  Choose your default foods wisely and keep the rest in the “rarely” category.


Sarah Waybright MS, RD

is the owner and founder of WhyFoodWorks and the team dietitian for Vegetable and Butcher.  WhyFoodWorks does nutrition education through food in Washington, DC in corporate seminars.  Vegetable and Butcher is a subscription-based service that delivers chef designed, dietitian approved, thoughtful prepared meals to health-conscious people in Washington, DC.  You can find Sarah on Twitter, FacebookPinterest or Instagram to get food tips and nutrition - and of course, healthy recipes.

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