What is the Nutrition Facts Label?

The nutrition facts label is the rectangular-shaped box of information on the back or side of packaged foods that you purchase. Regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the label is designed to tell you about the nutritional profile of the food or beverage you are consuming. It includes information like serving size, number of calories, total fat, and amount of sugar in the food or drink. It may also display some of the vitamins and minerals present, like vitamin D or potassium.

Non-packaged foods like raw fruits and vegetables, as well as fish, are not required to display nutrition labeling. Also, alcoholic beverages are not required to follow these rules, thanks (but no thanks) to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

How long has it been there?

In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was passed requiring consumer packaged goods companies to display nutritional information on most packaged food and beverage items. Prior to 1990, nutrition labeling was mostly voluntary and only required in certain circumstances where products were making a specific health or nutrition claim. The Act is meant to help consumers make more informed choices about their grocery purchases. 

New requirements were added by the FDA in 2016 based on updated science and understanding of nutrition, which were universally applied starting in 2021. These changes were mostly to the design, for example a bolder, larger font to display total serving size and calories. Another primary update was the addition of ‘added sugars’ below total sugars to include sugars added from processing.

Is it just me – or is the label hard to read?

While reading the nutrition information is important before purchasing and consuming a food or beverage, the label can be difficult to navigate. On top of that, it might be hard to see the small print at the time of purchase due to its location on the package. Meanwhile the marketed “promises” are displayed on the front of the box, like “low fat” and “50% less sugar,” in large, bold colors and fonts. This is on purpose.

When you are trying to figure out if an item is nutritious or not, it really helps to have background knowledge because the marketed promises on the front of the box are not the whole story. For example, knowing the difference between fat vs. saturated fat or sugars vs. added sugars is valuable information that might make you choose one product over another. 

Are efforts being made to improve the readability of nutrition labeling?

It’s been shown that as few as 5% of consumers read the current nutrition facts label on food and beverage packages. Clearly the intention of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 is not being met in the current design of the nutrition facts label – not enough people are being informed about the healthfulness of the foods they are purchasing.

Health advocates have called for the FDA to develop simple front-of-package labeling that would provide easy-to-understand information about the healthfulness of packaged foods. These front-of-package labels would include warnings to consumers when a food or drink is high in sugar, fat, or sodium. While the total amount of sodium may be displayed on the nutrition facts label on the back or side, it is not always clear whether the amount is too much for a single food or within recommended portions. A warning label on the front of the package would make sure the public is well-informed before purchasing.

Reading the Nutrition Facts Label

The nutrition facts label may be hard to fully understand so we broke down some of the most important sections:

Nutrition Facts Labels can be hard to read.
Image source: https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label

Serving Size

The first detail to look at when reading a nutrition label is the serving size. This is an easily missed part of the overall nutritional profile, but arguably is the most important since the information on the label is describing what elements are in a single serving. The total calories, sugar, etc. listed on the label will double if you consume 2 servings, triple if you consume 3, and so on. Sometimes, a single serving is less than most people eat or drink, so knowing how many servings you’ll be having in one sitting is an important first step to understanding the healthfulness of what you’ll be eating or drinking.

Calories

Calories are a measure of the amount of energy your body gets from the food. While the amount of calories necessary varies from person to person, a general guide is a 2,000 calorie per day diet. Since the number of calories on the label is based on a single serving, it’s important to consider how many servings you’ll be eating or drinking to get the total amount of calories you’re consuming. However, not all calories are created equally, some are better for you than others; think – whole grains, lean protein, unsaturated fats are good whereas added sugar, artificial ingredients and processed foods are not as good. So when aiming for 2,000 calories a day, be sure to choose your calorie sources carefully.

Percent Daily Value (%DV)

The % Daily Value number is the percentage of the total daily recommended amount of that particular nutrient that a single serving of the food or drink provides. Of course this value is different from person to person, but a good rule of thumb is that a % Daily Value of 5% or less is considered low while 20% or more is considered high.

Pro Tip: It’s best to choose food items that have a higher %DV of fiber, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium and a lower %DV of saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium.

What else to look out for

Manipulation of the serving size

Certain food and beverage products place 2 or more items in a single package yet put a smaller serving size on the label. Take Pop-Tarts for example – they place 2 in one package which not only makes it more likely for you to eat both in the package in one sitting, it may also lead you to believe that the serving size is 2 Pop-Tarts. However, if you look closely, that is not the case; the nutrition information is based on a single Pop-Tart. While at first glance on the nutrition facts label, the calories and sugar may seem lower, make sure to double this if you’re planning on eating the whole package.

Arizona Iced Tea is another example where the serving size does not account for the total amount in the can. Once you pop the can, you’re likely to drink the full can of tea. However, there are 3 servings in one can, so the 17g of sugar listed on the label needs to be multiplied by 3 for the true full amount.

Added sugars vs. Total sugars

Added sugars refer to sugar that is added during the processing of the food or drink. These processed sugars are much less healthy than sugar that is naturally found in foods like fruit. If there are 10g of sugar but all 10g are added sugars, this might be a food item to avoid or eat less of.

At the end of the day…

Food and beverage companies want you to make a purchase. Sometimes, instead of focusing on providing healthful ingredients with high nutritional value, companies may choose lower quality, cheap ingredients and might also manipulate their data to confuse consumers. 

Being informed about how to read the nutrition facts label carefully will help ensure you’re making the best decisions for your own health. These small steps will make you a better buyer and increase the healthfulness of the food in your home pantry.

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