Eating Rules: Guide to the Nutrition Facts Panel

When I met Andrew Wilder, he was gearing up to launch his October: Unprocessed challenge and I knew we had an instant connection to demystify food and health. Andrew  is a healthy foodie who believes that although diet and nutrition information is complicated, eating healthful, delicious food doesn’t have to be.  He writes about all this and more on his blog, Eating Rules. Follow Andrew on Twitter @eatingrules or find him on Facebook.

Guide to the Nutrition Facts Panel

Once you get in the habit of reading nutrition labels, it becomes like a game. If you know what to look for, you’ll start to see patterns emerge and will be able to tell very quickly if a food is good for you or if it’s full of junk. So before you put that new box of food in your shopping cart, please ignore all the marketing claims on the front, flip the box over, and check out the nutrition facts.

My introductory guide to reading the nutrition facts label is a fun, one-page diagram, designed to give you a quick overview of what I look for on the label. I’m grateful to Nimisha for giving me the opportunity to expand a bit on a few of the points here. I’m a big believer that “knowledge is power” — so I hope that you’ll find some power in the information below.

1. Read the ingredients list first.
This is the best way to know what you’re putting in your body. Ingredients must be sorted by order of descending quantity, so there’s more of the first ingredient than any other single ingredient.  Some ingredients may have sub-ingredients, which are indicated in parentheses or brackets.

TIP: Different types of sugar can be listed separately. In the sample label on the PDF, Enriched Flour is followed by Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, and Dextrose. It’s very likely that there’s actually more sugar than flour in that product.

2.Memorize the footer information.
The “footer” information is identical on every label. Although it’s generic, it works well as a basic guideline.  In general, women should consume around 2,000 calories a day, and men around 2,500.

Many factors influence this number, including gender, age, activity level, general health, etc., but this is a good place to start. Memorize the appropriate column for you, and then you never have to look at this section of the label every again. (Find some online calorie calculators here).

3. Servings vs. Portions.
There are no precise rules about what companies can say constitutes a “serving,” so it’s sometimes hard to compare products. They are, however, required to show the number of servings per container. Keep in mind that a serving may be different than a portion.  An appropriate serving of meat is four ounces — but a steak served at a restaurant may be eight or more ounces. Be realistic about how many servings you’re actually going to eat.

4. Calories are still king.
If you know how many calories you should eat in a day, and you know how many calories are in a serving, then it just takes some basic math to figure out if this food fits well into your overall diet  A snack should probably be no more than around 200 calories.  TIP: Most whole fruits — a perfect snack from mother nature — are around 100 calories.

5. So much salt!
Sadly, most packaged foods have waaaaaay too much sodium. If a product has more milligrams of sodium than it does calories, it’s probably too high. It’s somewhat unrealistic in the current food climate to think you can do better with packaged foods, but it’s still a good guideline to keep your eye on,  TIP: Breads and soups are the worst offenders, so watch those extra carefully.

6. Fiber is fabulous.
It’s generally true that the more naturally-occurring fiber in a food, the better it is for you. But beware: Manufacturers now add fiber to many products, and there’s no distinction on the label.  If you see inulin, polydextrose, maltodextrin, or modified wheat starch in the ingredients list, it’s got added fiber. Though it’s not likely to hurt, and may indeed be good, the benefits of this extra fiber are not yet proven. Aim to eat 25-38 grams of naturally-occurring fiber every day from whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fresh fruits & vegetables. Learn more from my Fiber Primer.

7. Sugar is sugar.
Unfortunately, the nutrition label doesn’t distinguish between naturally-occurring sugars and added sugars, so it’s simplest just to assume less is better.  TIP: There’s about four grams of sugar in a teaspoon of regular table sugar, so divide the number shown on the label by four and visualize that many teaspoons of sugar. Still hungry?

8. Pack on the protein.
Dietary recommendations on protein vary widely, but the easiest guideline I’ve found is to aim for about ½ gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. (Example: A 160-pound person should eat about 80 grams a day). Remember, it’s important get your protein from a variety of sources. Look for beans & legumes, nuts, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and smaller portions of lean meats.

9. Fat Fallacy.
Not all fats are bad (and some are even good), and eating fat doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get fat. Avoid man-made trans fats like the plague, and watch out for the trans fat loophole: If a food has partially-hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils in the ingredients, it has trans fats! (The number shown can be rounded down to zero). Polyunsaturated fats are the good stuff, but mono-unsaturated fats are okay, too. TIP: Fat has 9 calories per gram (carbs and protein each have around 4), so more fat does mean more calories.

10. Vitameatavegamin?
Of course it’s important to get your daily dose of vitamins and minerals, but I don’t usually give this area of the label more than a passing glance. Are you really going to sit there and tally up your vitamin and mineral intake?  If you know you’re deficient in a particular one (or more), then you should definitely do it.  But otherwise, if you’re going to count something, it’s probably more worthwhile to count calories and naturally-occurring fiber. Eat a lot of different whole fruits & veggies, and you’ll do better than trying to get all your vitamins and minerals from a packaged food.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide or to replace any qualified medical advice. It’s just an overview, and I’ve left lots of important stuff out. For more in-depth information, check out the FDA’s Consumer Nutrition and Health Information.