You go to the grocery store and grab a food item off a shelf. You turn the box right to its nutrition facts label and the first thing you lay your eyes on are the well known words such as "calories, fat, cholesterol, etc." alongside their nutrient amounts. However, what do these values really mean?
Whether it is the calorie amount you are looking at or wondering the vitamin percentage the food has, it is important for consumers to understand these labels and to know what nutrients to look for and look out for.
The serving size present on a nutrition facts label is very important. The nutritional information you read below it is all applicable to that one amount so be sure you are reading it properly. For example, if a box containing 12 cookies has 150 calories per serving but one serving size is 6 cookies, the entire box of cookies contains 300 calories. Without paying attention to this serving size you may mistakenly think these 12 cookies are "healthier" than they actually are. Always look at serving sizes!
Calories are one of the most noticed pieces of information consumers pay attention to on nutrition facts labels as well as one of the most monitored. Our bodies do need calories to produce energy. However, when a high amount of calories is combined with a high amount of other bad nutrients such as fats, cholesterol, and sugar this is when it become a "bad food" and can be harmful to your health. Calories are one of those things that our body should receive, but by moderation. Don't forget to take into account the serving size!
Each nutrition facts label states "Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet." How does this relate to the percent daily value presented next to each nutrient? A percent daily value represents the percentage in which that particular nutrient is putting towards your daily amount for that nutrient. For example, a product's sodium Percent Daily Value of 15% would be interpreted as one serving of that product contributing 15% out of 100% of your daily diet of sodium.
Carbohydrates, cholesterol, sodium and fats (particularly Saturated and Trans fats) are the nutrients you especially want to pay attention to. Consuming too much of these nutrients can give you a higher risk of health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol. A lot of these health issues come hand in hand. For example, obesity can lead to a higher risk of diabetes.
Again, don't forget to take into account the serving size when reading the nutrient amounts! Keep in mind that a nutrient with a %DV that is less than or equal to 5% is low and a %DV that is greater than or equal to 20% is high.
Be sure to get a sufficient amount of your vitamins, calcium, and iron. These nutrients are important to keep your body and bones strong and healthy. Consuming the right amount of these nutrients will improve your overall health by helping to keep your immune system up, give you more energy, and keep your heart healthy. Different populations of people may also have additional benefits to getting the right amount of good nutrients into their system. For instance, as children grow it is important for them to consume enough calcium for developing strong and healthy bones. For both men and women, having the proper nutrients in your body can play a major role in reducing chances of heart disease.
Similarly to the bad nutrients, if a good nutrient has a %DV less than or equal to 5% it is low and if its %DV is greater than or equal to 20% it is high.
Always keep in the back of your mind that although a food item may say "Low in Fat!" or something along those lines to imply that it is "healthier" than others, that is not always the case. There are many instances in which a food company may claim their product to be low in one nutrient but in reality it is still much higher in another harmful nutrient. For example, many products claim to be low or free of fats but may make up for it by being higher in carbs or sugar.
We're not saying to fully inspect each and every box of food you purchase and consume, but hopefully this information will help you to better understand what you're actually reading when you look at a product's nutrition facts. Use this information to compare different brands of food or to look for similar foods that may be a healthier alternative. Consume in proper moderation and know what you're putting into your body. Make it a habit to pay closer attention to these nutrients and you will be rewarded by a more energized and healthy body!