Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Eating Well
10 tips for reading food labels
Melissa Bess, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Camden County, University of Missouri Extension
March is National Nutrition Month, so this is a good time to start making small changes to eat healthier. One of the easiest changes you can make is reading the nutrition labels on foods and beverages.
- Pay attention to the serving size. Is the serving size enough
for your meal or snack, or will you have to eat multiple servings?
To help estimate, one cup is about the size of a baseball and 3-4
ounces is about the size of a deck of cards. You may need to use
a measuring cup until you can eyeball the serving size. If you eat
more than the serving size listed, you will have to multiply the
information on the food label by how many servings you eat.
- Look at the servings per container. This is especially tricky
on foods that we think may be a single serving but may be more, like
a can of soup, a 20 ounce drink or a frozen dinner. If the servings
per container are more than one and you eat the entire container,
you will have to multiply the information on the food label by how
many servings you are eating. Some things we think are a single serving
are actually two or more.
- Look at the amount of sodium. Older adults should limit their
sodium intake to 1,500 mg a day. So if your food has 750 mg of sodium,
that is half of the sodium you need in one day. Divide the amount
of sodium by 1,500 to determine the percentage for that day.
- Make sure to look at the trans fat and saturated fat. Experts
recommend that you keep these numbers as low as possible because
they negatively impact heart health.
- Don’t forget fiber. It is recommended that we consume 25-35 grams
of fiber per day. Whole grains (such as brown rice, oatmeal and 100%
whole grain bread/pasta/cereal), fruits and vegetables are the best
sources of fiber so choose more of these foods.
- Get enough vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. Those are
the required vitamins and minerals on a label, but there also may
be additional ones listed. The closer those percentages are to 20
percent, the better. Higher than 20 percent is even healthier.
- Only certain populations should pay attention to cholesterol
and carbohydrates. If your physician has told you to limit cholesterol,
you should look at that number. Those with diabetes should pay attention
to the total carbohydrate number. Others do not need to worry too
much about those numbers.
- Look in two places for the amount of sugar. You can look both
on the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list. For a more
visual representation, divide the grams of sugar by four to get the
amount in teaspoons. Look in the ingredient list for corn syrup,
anything with the word “sugar” or things that end in “ose” as those
indicate sugar. The closer to the top of the list or the more of
those in an ingredient list, the more sugar that food has.
- Protein needs are based on gender, weight and activity levels.
Generally speaking, about 20 grams or so of protein per meal is appropriate.
Use the labels to see how much protein you are getting.
- When deciding between two similar foods, compare the nutrition labels. For instance, when deciding between skim milk and 2% milk, compare the nutrients listed such as total fat, calories, sugar, fiber, protein and vitamins/minerals.
Food labels provide a wealth of information for consumers — use them to choose healthy foods at the store.
Last update: Monday, March 18, 2013