Essentials of reading nutrition labels, how to spot less than ideal foods

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A college student looking at the nutrition facts of some noodles. Watch the sodium! (Vail Moshiri | The Collegian)

Knowing how to read a nutrition label can help you understand what exactly you are eating. In addition, you can use this information to your advantage and make positive food choices that contribute to a healthier diet.

Serving size

The first thing you see on a label is the serving size and the number of servings. This makes it easy to compare foods, since the serving size influences the number of calories and nutrients. Serving sizes are compared in familiar units such as cups, pieces, grams, etc.

Calories

The number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you are actually taking in. Calories provide a numeric measure of how much energy you get from eating the specific food. This information is helpful if you are trying to manage your weight.

“I usually look at the amount of calories in a food first,” Mary Kline, junior in animal sciences and industry, said. “If I am trying to lose weight, it is a good factor to compare with different types of food.”

According to health and wellness site health.com, many people make the decision to consume a food solely on the basis of its caloric value. But foods that are high in calories may be worth eating too, if they contain a lot of nutrients.

Nutrients

Some may think you can never have enough nutrients in your body. However, there are “good” and “bad” nutrients. According to the Food and Drug Administration, too much fat, saturated fats, trans fat and sodium can lead to increased blood pressure, which raises the risk for heart disease. Aim to limit their intake as much as possible.

Conversely, according to the FDA, most Americans don’t get enough of the “good” nutrients in their daily diet. Dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron can all keep bowel movements regular and bones healthier, while reducing the risk of heart diseases too.

“I really watch my intake of the nutrients that aren’t good for me,” Chase Minihan, senior in animal sciences and industry, said. “Eating well can decrease my chance of a heart attack by a landslide.”

Percentage Daily Value

Every nutrition label has a footnote, which indicates the amount of nutrients added in a food. The footnote includes a list of the “percent daily value” for the product, which is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.

This is good to use as a reference as to whether a serving of the food is high or low in a specific nutrient, as the daily value is the amount of each nutrient that is considered sufficient for most adults. According to health.com, any food that contains 10-19 percent of the daily value is considered a good source of that nutrient.

The trick to staying healthy is simply increasing your intake of the “good” nutrients and minimizing intake of the “bad” ones.

Just because “fat-free” or “all-natural” is printed on a product does not mean it is healthy for you. The food may contain a large proportion of a nutrient that is not good for your body. For instance, fat-free flavored yogurt may have “fat-free” printed on the front of the container, but after inspecting the nutrition label you may not be impressed. According to Forbes, most containers pack 15 grams of sugar in a 6-ounce container.

So next time you buy something, take the time to flip to the back of the product to review the nutrition label. Then you can make the decision as to whether eating it is a good choice.

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