How to Read Nutrition Labels and Eat Healthy

New nutrition label on food packages is easier to read and use

A side-by-side comparison of original and new label for Nutrition Facts from the FDA.

New nutrition label on food packages is easier to read and use

When it comes to a healthy diet, information is power. Knowing how to read nutrition labels on food packages can help you make healthy eating choices. Recent changes to the “Nutrition Facts” label have made it easier to read and use.

In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated the Nutrition Facts label with new dietary information and design features. Though many food manufacturers already use this updated label, the deadline to comply was set for Jan. 1, 2020, for large companies and Jan. 1, 2021, for small companies.

“The Nutrition Facts label is a valuable tool that can help you and your family make smart choices when you shop for groceries. It will help you make healthier food choices,” says Yawen Cheng, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Encinitas.

New food labels must include:

  • Calories, calorie count, number of servings and serving size in larger, bolder type
  • Serving size updates
  • Listing of vitamin D and potassium
  • Listing of added sugars
  • Listing of saturated and trans fats
  • Easier-to-understand footnote explaining Percent Daily Value (DV)

Original vs. New Nutriton Facts label

Original vs. New Nutriton Facts label

The most visible changes on the new Nutrition Facts label are at the top (see graphic). Larger type size is used to show serving size, servings per package, calories and calorie count. Information on the label is based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories.

“Servings and calories play a big role in our diet and health, including our weight,” says Dr. Cheng. “Nearly 40 percent of American adults are obese and carrying excess weight puts people at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers.”

How to read Nutritional Facts label

Follow our tips on how to read nutrition labels as we further explain the changes to the Nutrition Facts label.

Changes in serving size

Serving size has been updated to reflect changes in the amount of food we eat today. It’s intended to be more realistic. For example, a single serving of ice cream used to be listed as 1/2 a cup but is now 2/3 cup.

Food packages often contain multiple servings. For certain packages, labels need to show the number of calories and nutritional value per serving and per package or container.

“Always check the serving size first and the number of servings listed on the label of the package,” Dr. Cheng says. “The serving size is not a recommendation. It is a guide to show you how many calories you’re consuming and the amount of nutrients.”

Calories easier to count

The new label makes counting calories per serving easier with the new larger type size requirement.

Calories are the energy supplied in the foods and drinks we consume or the energy we use in physical activity. Calorie needs are different for each person, however.

“Our bodies need energy but consuming the right amount of calories is important,” Dr. Cheng says. “When we consume more calories than we need, the body stores the extra calories as body fat.”

While information on the nutrition label is based on a 2,000-calorie a day diet, your calorie needs may be higher or lower, depending on your age, sex and physical activity level. To find your personal daily calorie needs visit the FDA website.

Vitamin D and potassium now included

Vitamin D and potassium information is now listed on labels. Surveys show Americans are not getting enough of these nutrients. Vitamin D is important for bone health, and potassium helps lower blood pressure.

Iron and calcium continue to be listed. Vitamins A and C are no longer required to be listed, but can on a voluntary basis.

Changes in fats listing

Though they get a bad rap, we need fats for energy and to support cell growth. The new label no longer requires calories from fat to be listed. Research shows that type of fat is more important than number of fat calories.

The updated label still requires total fat, saturated fat and trans fat to be included. Diets high in saturated and trans fats can raise your low-density lipoprotein or “bad cholesterol.” This can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. They are found in foods such as:

  • Butter, vegetable shortening
  • Meat and poultry
  • Processed meats, bacon, hot dogs
  • Baked goods, snack food and sweets

“For good health, most of the fats you consume should be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. They’re good for you when eaten in moderation,” Dr. Cheng says. “Both can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood.”

Monounsaturated fats can be found in foods, such as avocados, nuts, olives and seeds. Polyunsaturated fats can be found in fish and vegetable oils.

Added sugars now included

The new label requires added sugars to be included in grams and as a percent Daily Value (DV).

Added sugars are sugars added during the processing of foods or are packaged as such. They include sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices.

Too many added sugars can lead to health problems, such as weight gain and poor nutrition. Added sugars should make up no more than 10 percent of your daily calories.

Look for the type of added sugars on the ingredient list of food packages. Some of the main sources of added sugars are found in:

  • Baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, pastries and pies
  • Desserts, such as ice cream and pudding
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as energy drinks, soft drinks, sweetened coffee and tea
  • Sweets, such as candies, sweet topping and syrups

Use Percent Daily Value (% DV) as nutrition guide

Percent Daily Value shows how much a nutrient in one serving contributes to a daily diet. Daily value is listed with the symbol “% DV” for nutrients, such as fats, carbohydrates and protein. The updated label also has a new footnote explaining the meaning of Percent Daily Value (DV).

Use DV to check if a serving is high or low in a nutrient and to compare food products.

Generally, 5 percent DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low. “Aim low for saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars,” Dr. Cheng says. “Aim for a 20 percent Daily Value for foods high for fiber, vitamins and minerals.”

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