Decoding Nutrition Labels

Find out what you’re eating before you buy

Did you check the nutrition label on that can of soup before you tossed it into your grocery cart? A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota suggests that even if you glance at the nutrition facts before you buy, you may still be missing key information.

The study asked consumers to participate in a simulated shopping experience, using a computer to track their eye movements. Only 1 percent of participants looked at the total fat, trans fat, sugar and serving size on nearly all the labels – even though 31 percent of participants claimed to do so.

Checking the nutrition facts on food labels before you buy can help you make smarter decisions about your diet. However, with so many elements to consider, it may feel like you need a road map to navigate the labels. That’s why Danielle Lipparelli, a registered dietitian at Scripps Health in San Diego, California, suggests starting with what’s most important to you.

“Dieters often count calories and check out the amount of fat,” says Lipparelli. “Patients with heart disease look for lower salt and lower fat foods because that is what’s important to them. Take your special health needs and goals into consideration and start there.”

Serving size vs. portion size

Once you know what type of nutrients you want to limit or get enough of, check the serving size to be sure you know just how much of each item on the label you’re actually eating if you consume the entire container.

“The entire food label quantifies one serving size,” says Lipparelli. “Right below that, it says how many servings are in the package. That piece of information is critical. If there are three servings in a package, eating the entire package would result in tripling all the nutrition information.”

For some packaged items, a serving size is not the same as the portion size you would normally eat. By checking the serving size, the amount of nutrients can be put into context.

Finding the right balance

Once you know the serving size, Lipparelli suggests looking for balanced foods that keep carbohydrates (carbs) and fats in moderation.

“A lot of our daily calories now come from eating excess carbs and sugar. A typical portion size for carbohydrates is only 15 grams,” says Lipparelli. “When you sit down for a snack, try to only have one portion. It puts some perspective on how much you’re eating.”

It’s also important to note the fat ratio. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, prevent heart disease or just stay healthy, look for items that have 3 grams of fat or less for every 7-8 grams of protein; or one carbohydrate portion (15 grams) for every 3 grams of fat. This technique can help you remember that the fat content of any item should no more than a third of what you’re eating.

If you find you’re still hungry, try adding foods that are higher in protein.

“Protein promotes satiety,” notes Lipparelli. “It also helps maintain energy for all of your daily activities.”

Download our easy-to-read nutrition label chart for your next grocery shopping trip. (PDF, 822 KB)

Nutrition Label Infographic

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