5 Tips for How to Make the Food Label Work for You.

By now you’ve probably seen that food labels will be changing. The hot topics have included the addition of “Added Sugars”, vitamin D, and potassium to food labels, as well as changes to serving sizes to more accurately reflect how much we’re eating at one time. A summary of all the major changes can be found in a recent Today’s Dietitian article.

New Label What's Different
Source: FDA

It’s one thing to know how the food label is changing but to make the food label work for you, first you have to understand it. The purpose of food labels on packaged foods is to give consumers an idea of the types and amounts of nutrients in foods in the context of a daily diet based on 2,000 calories. Two important and often misunderstood declarations on Nutrition Facts labels are Serving size and Daily Value (DV)/Percent Daily Value (%DV).
Serving Size: Serving size information on Nutrition Facts labels represents how much consumers are actually eating, not how much they should be eating. This is an important distinction in an overweight and obesity heavy era. While Serving sizes and corresponding calorie amounts can help you estimate how many calories are in one serving of a product, they shouldn’t be used as a goal when figuring out how much to eat at one time. Here’s a helpful blog post by Heather Caplan about Serving sizes:
Daily Value (DV) and Percent Daily Value (%DV): The %DV on the food label tells you the percentage of a particular nutrient in one serving of a product, based on the daily recommended intake level for that nutrient. Do you have to memorize each recommended intake level to be able to use the %DV and find more healthful foods? No! You just have to know which nutrients you should increase and decrease in your diet and then use the %DV as a guide.

  • Nutrients to increase: vitamin D, calcium, iron, potassium, fiber

  • Nutrients to decrease: saturated fat, sodium, Added Sugars

  • Neutral: fat, cholesterol, protein, carbohydrates

Although recent research indicates that the type of fat is more important than overall fat intake, and that how much cholesterol you eat may not negatively affect blood lipids, consult a registered dietitian or medical professional if you have a chronic disease such as diabetes, as you may be more sensitive to dietary fat and cholesterol intake. While many food labels won’t have a %DV listing for protein, most consumers eat more protein than what’s recommended, so you likely don’t need to seek out higher protein products. Further, most Americans already eat sufficient carbohydrates compared to what’s recommended, so most of you don’t have to be overly concerned about increasing or decreasing carbohydrates in your diet either.
You won’t see a %DV listing for trans fat and sugar because there’s no recommended intake level to base a %DV on. You also won’t typically see a %DV for protein because one is only required if a claim is made about protein, such as “high in protein”, or if the food is marketed toward infants and children under 4 years old (such as rice cereal or puffs).
Bottom line: Reading and comparing food labels is something we can all do to help make more healthful choices. Follow these tips to make the food label work for you.

  1. When trying to figure out if something is high or low in calories, remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers 40 calories per serving to be low, 100 calories per serving to be moderate, and 400 calories or more per serving to be high.

  2. Use the %DV to help increase and decrease nutrients in your diet. FDA considers 5%DV or less per serving to be low and 20%DV or more per serving to be high. If you are eating two servings of a food, then the %DV will be double what’s stated on the label.

  3. Look for products with 0 g trans fat, since there’s no DV for trans fat.

  4. Until the new labels come out, check the Ingredients statement to look for Added Sugar.EatingWell also has a nice article on finding Added Sugars in products.

  5. If counting calories, make sure you keep track of how many servings you are eating at a time, and adjust the calorie content accordingly (for example, if there are 50 calories per serving and you eat 3 servings, log this as 150 calories. This is the same for all nutrients on the label).