Updated: May 18
Understanding food labels is difficult for many people. Nutrition facts are guidelines that should inform consumers about what they’re eating and how to fit those food choices into an all-around “healthy diet,” or a diet that includes nutritious foods that meet your macro and micronutrient needs.
The nutrition facts label on your food products has recently been updated for the first time in more than twenty years. Food manufacturers are now required to include even more information to help you make more informed choices. However, consumer awareness is still lacking when it comes to appropriate portion sizes, health claims on product labels, and how to make healthier choices.
Here’s how to read a nutrition label for better-informed decision making, and answers to your most common nutrition label questions.
Understanding key nutrients
Reading food labels is important for a few reasons. First, they help you decide whether you’re regularly meeting your nutrient goals over time. Note that we’re speaking about patterns over time, not daily goals as part of a specific sports training plan or diet. There will be days when your macronutrient and micronutrient consumptions vary due to access and eating habits, which is a normal experience for the human body. The twenty-four hour schedule is mostly just a construct when it comes to nutrition.
Even if you’re not sure what your individual daily requirements are for the energy-providing macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins), monitoring your consumption and just observing patterns in food consumption is an important place to start. Over or under consuming any macro or micronutrient for chronic periods (like, your whole adult life), can have a huge influence on your genetic expression of chronic illnesses that run in your family. In other words, patterns in micro and macronutrient consumption are the “lifestyle” factors that make you more or less likely to become ill with hereditary and other chronic diseases.
Your nutrition label will give you all of the content information in the form of units of energy (number of calories), grams of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fiber, and added sugars. The carbohydrates, fats, and proteins contribute to the energy count (calories) listed. The percent daily values are estimates of how much of your daily macronutrient needs are met with one serving of this food product. Keep in mind, they are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which will be inaccurate for most people (more below).
Other essential vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) and their daily values in a single serving of food are listed on the label. Some micronutrients are water-soluble and need to be consumed daily, while others are fat-soluble and can be stored in the body for self-regulation. More on macro and micronutrients, including how much energy you need in my Nutrition 101 article.
Other key nutrients to understand are the different types of fats, sugars, fibers, and the infamous cholesterol. You can learn more about some of those in Nutrition 101. If you’re interested in learning what your daily values for those are, I recommend meeting with a Registered Dietician in your state. Personal trainers are not legally allowed to write client-specific meal plans in most states, but a Registered Dietician can. If you have health insurance, your provider may cover some of the cost (though they can be pretty expensive, but worth it). I don’t recommend making any major dietary changes without consulting your primary care doctor first.
Decoding the ingredients list
The ingredient list should be one of the first parts of the nutrition label that you check before buying a new food for the first time. This is especially true if this new food item is highly processed or created to be shelf-stable, even when some of its ingredients would not be naturally.
The ingredients on the ingredients list are listed in order of prevalence in the food item. This means the first few items on this list are the major ingredients in the product. This helps you understand just how much of that protein bar or pop tart you want to buy is high-fructose corn syrup or potassium sorbate and how much of it is egg, water, whole grains, or some variation of natural or artificial sweetener.
Why does any of this matter?
Think critically about the things that you consume on a regular basis. They’re delicious, right? Are they mostly food? The kind real humans would eat if we were self-sufficient and generating our own food sources? Or are they predominantly manufactured and manipulated to be able to avoid mold and retain a beautiful artificial color, smell or texture? Your body’s cells and digestive system are very well suited for one of those food types, but not the other.
The United States also has more lenient laws about the kinds of allowable additives in your food. This includes shelf-stable foods specifically marketed toward toddlers, small children, and mothers who are just trying to give their children the best nutrition options accessible to them. For example, food additives that change the natural color or scent of a food to make it more appealing are often banned in countries like the UK. These include the Yellow No. 5, No. 6, and Red No. 40 dyes that are commonly in children’s snacks and cereals in the US.
Did you know farm raised salmon is fed astaxanthin to give the muscle tissue a coral color? While this potentially beneficial, or at least non-harmful carotenoid compound may eventually prove safe and effective as a food dye, Australia and New Zealand do not believe enough research has been done on the compound and its application to know if it’s safe, especially as administered as the food source for the fish during their lifetimes. Farm-raised salmon is not legal there.
The ingredients list can also help you identify whether you have a food sensitivity or allergy. Did you know that The Lancet (the oldest peer-reviewed weekly medical journal in existence) found nearly 70 percent of the global adult population is lactose intolerant? That’s because your body wasn’t designed to digest milk well into adulthood (it’s for babies, so are boobs y’all, wake up).
Often times, our bodies tell us something’s up long before we realize the painful physical symptoms of a sensitivity or misread need from the body. Keeping a regular journal of the physical experiences or discomforts you have throughout the day, particularly related to the digestive system, metabolic system and nervous systems, can help you pinpoint whether a food ingredient is the culprit. Feeling foggy everyday at 3pm? What are you having for lunch? Did you eat breakfast? What role does caffeine play in your energy management?
Stay attuned to your food labels and have a general sense of your caloric and macronutrient needs. Do a quick google search of new ingredients you find on your food labels. Do you feel comfortable feeding that to your family? Or do you want to research a little further? If you do, do you feel comfortable finding credible sources for these important decisions?
If all of this seems overwhelming, I have some great practical tips for approaching food labels and finding a balance that works for you. Remember I am not a registered dietician, the experience I speak of is through making my own informed decisions through research and experimentation and scientific exploration within my own body. Be a good consumer and take care of your temple.
The myth of the 2,000-calorie diet
Your daily calorie intake depends on the individual needs of your unique body, and varies from person-to-person. You may have been told that you should aim for 2,000 calories per day, but that doesn’t really account for the metabolic differences between individuals. Individual caloric needs vary based on a number of factors, including height and weight, typical activity levels, the amount of muscle mass you have, your environment, whether or not you are pregnant or recovering from illness or injury, and even how well you’re sleeping and managing your stress.
Thanks to the globalized internet, we recently learned that the 2,000 calorie suggestion for average adult energy needs was probably a gross underestimate, based on self-reported nationwide food consumption surveys. More importantly, it’s a one-size-fits-all estimate that is inaccurate for a lot of folks.
Remember that caloric needs change when you’re not getting enough sleep or managing stress well. When you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or recovering from pregnancy, your needs will likely be higher. Always talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian (not a “nutritionist”) before starting a new meal plan or implementing dietary restrictions of any kind. It is always encouraged to get a second opinion, no matter the guidance, and understand that PCPs may not have current information about the lifestyle (like plant based) or trend (like keto, Atkins, or any diet that asks you to ignore balance for the sake of restriction). Seek a specialist if you have questions related to dietary restrictions, micro and macronutrient supplementation, or food allergies before making your most informed dietary decisions.
We also advise that you seek the advice of a registered dietician if you struggle with mental health challenges, like depression. Maintaining a proper diet with balanced nutrition (and sometimes supplementation, in accordance with your RD's guidelines) can have a major impact on the efficacy of certain prescription medications for mental health management. In addition to a balanced diet, strength training, yoga, meditation and time in nature have all been proven to help regulate neurotransmitter deficiencies in the brain, and even aid in addiction recovery.
Food labeling regulations and organizations
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) handles most of the federal regulations for food labeling in the United States. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the nation’s medical research agency, which “provides leadership and direction to programs designed to improve the health of the Nation”. This organization shares its research and findings with government organizations that make health-related decisions and legislation nationally. These two organizations are the main components of the public health sector as it relates to nutrition and food regulation, and the USDA controls the food production process, including agricultural regulations. Local health departments further regulate food based on local need (like announcing food contamination recalls or issuing “boil” advisories for contaminated tap water).
However the American diet is heavily influenced, molded and commodified through other groups, including media, the fitness industry, the dairy and meat industries, and other exploitative companies and organizations. That’s why understanding “health claims” and ambiguous labeling is so important. Let’s start with organics.
What “organic food” really means
“Organic” is a term that means “carbon-based” or “derived from living matter of Earth”. In today’s supermarket, it’s grossly misconstrued. Certified “organic” food in the US is any food product (usually produce, but sometimes processed foods and dairy products) that was grown in accordance with federal standards, and its soil was not exposed to a prohibited chemical for at least three years prior to harvest.
Organic foods do not have different nutritional value than non-organic foods. They do not contain more or fewer antioxidants than their non-organic counterparts (all produce has tons of natural antioxidant benefits).They’ve simply been exposed to fewer (ideally, zero) chemical additives through pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.
You can grow your own organic food at home, and I encourage you to try it. Composting is nature’s way of fertilizing the plants you eat, so maybe even give that a go. It’s rewarding.
Demystifying health claims
Like abusing or manipulating the marketing around “organic” products, the food industry uses other wild health claims to appeal to the part of you that’s working hard to be better (thanks, Capitalism). Here’s what some of the FDA’s 12 authorized health claims and some of their “qualified” health claims really mean:
These are foods with less than ½ g of fat per serving.
These are foods with ½ gram or less sugar per serving.
These foods have 3 grams of fat or less per serving
Reduced fat foods
This means the company has altered the food to remove at least 25% of the original fat content.
Reduce your risk of heart disease
These food products have met the macronutrient and energy balance requirements to be qualified for an “authorized claim,” and contain one or more ingredients proven to reduce damage done to organs via cholesterol blockage and other risk factors (like high sodium intake). Usually this means the food item is high in dietary fiber, which binds to cholesterol and helps maintain gut health, among other superpowers.
Reduce your risk of other chronic diseases
To make the claim that a food can reduce the risk for chronic illness, it must contribute a taste, aroma, or nutrient to the final consumable food product that contributes to the claim associated with a specific ingredient known to potentially have these effects on the body. It must also meet the macronutrient balance requirement for all FDA-authorized health claims. For example: “Eating a food high in antioxidants may help reduce your risk for some cancers”.
Studies suggest this product may reduce the risk of this chronic illness/health condition in combination with a healthy lifestyle and low-cholesterol/sugar/other nutrient diet**
These health claims are “qualified” but not “authorized”. They will always include a disclaimer and can only make claims that are very likely to be true (note the ambiguity of the word “may”) based on the scientific evidence available.
Note that the FDA can reasonably allow an exception to the health claim regulations if they find that allowing the claim to persist will “assist consumers in maintaining healthy dietary practices”.
Food safety: "Sell-By" date, "Use-By" date and other dated information
Let’s talk about food safety. Nutrition labels also typically have a printed date either somewhere on or very near the label. Food products use different types of labels to mean different things, including when the product should be sold by, when it’s freshest (“best if used by”), and when it’s safe to consume. In the interest of avoiding liability, I will allow the experts at Consumer Notice to explain those differences here. I encourage you to read the full article for complete food safety information.
That being said, be aware that the more shelf-stable your food is, the more likely it is to contain additives and preservatives. Don’t forget to feed your body lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and only buy what you’ll need. A huge percentage of American food products go directly to a landfill without ever leaving their packaging, so this is something we’re not great at.
If you frequently have food waste, reduce the amount you buy with each trip and take more trips to the store. This is a great excuse to walk to a nearby grocery store once a week and to get outside, save fuel, and burn calories. It’s also a great excuse to start composting.
A note on dietary supplements
Protein and micronutrient supplements are commonly used by both athletes and ordinary folks. While they might seem like the solution to the ongoing calls from the fitness and dairy industries to “consume more protein,” the science supporting supplements is actually pretty new and pretty inconclusive. Scientists are still learning about the bioavailability of these proteins through normal digestion, and the long term effects of consuming synthetic protein supplements.
Still, supplements must contain the same nutrition information as other food products, and can be read in exactly the same way.
It’s almost impossible to know how much of any supplement your body will actually use and absorb. This includes for your micronutrient supplements, like daily vitamins. However, a Registered Dietician can help you identify whether you’ve developed a deficiency or excess of certain nutrients over time.
I do personally consume some vegan proteins, because they seem to help me meet my fitness and other health goals (see my recipes page). However, I am merely a consumer with a journal, keeping my own notes, adding a single variable to the fitness equation at a time, and noticing how I look, feel, and perform as a result. None of these observations happen overnight. Learn and grow with your body over time.
If you choose to supplement, do so responsibly. Pay attention to the way your body reacts to supplements (including in the gut, through cognition, and mental health) and ask your PCP or RD before trying new supplements or ergonomic aids, especially if they make health claims or use marketing and product presentation to imply something without saying it. Whole food sources will always be your best source of both micro and macronutrients. Keeping a food journal can help you be more objective about your health outcomes, and to avoid the “placebo effect”.
Want to learn how to implement all of this, one step at a time, into your daily life? Sign up for coaching and we can take a deep dive into personalizing your lifestyle and nutrition choices so that you love the foods that you choose to nourish you. Check out my recipes and other articles to get started on your own, or email me with questions here.