Knowing the nutrition value of the foods we eat is very important. Can you believe there was a time when we just ate the food that we bought in the supermarket … without knowing? It’s actually kind of scary considering what we now know about foods and health.
Luckily, it is now mandatory in most countries for the producers of all foods to place a label on product packaging which displays the nutritional values of the food contained inside. The label is called “Nutrition Facts”.
Here’s a photo of one from a cereal box.
There’s lots of information here. But what does it all mean? Let’s start at the top:
Serving Size: Directly under the “Nutrition Facts” title, is the Serving Size. This can be displayed in a number of different ways. It can be a measurement (as in the example above), but it can also be listed as a weight, a package or even an amount of items, like 5 crackers, 2 slices, 3 pieces, etc.
Some labels will also tell you how many servings are in the package. The important thing about the Serving Size is that all of the information which is displayed under it pertains to that Serving Size. In other words if you want to know what is contained in two servings, you need to double all of the information that is displayed below it on the label.
Calories: This is the amount of Calories (some labels say “energy”) that are contained in each serving (in the example above, the label reflects the amount of Calories that would be included for milk as well, assuming that most people eat cereal with milk – not all labels will show an additional item like this).
*The items in the top portion of the label (under Calories and before the Vitamin and Mineral listing), are listed by weight.*
The top three categories, Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium, are ingredients that the FDA labels as “Limit These Nutrients”, and they further advise that “Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure”, so the information provided in these categories reflects this.
Fat: The Fat category shows the total amount of Fat in each serving. This category is broken down into two sections – Trans Fat and Saturated Fat. Since Trans Fat and Saturated Fat can be detrimental to our health, these are listed separately.
Cholesterol: This figure represents the amount of Cholesterol contained in each serving. It is recommended that no more than 200 to 300 mg of Cholesterol be consumed daily.
Sodium: This is the amount of Sodium (or salt) contained in each serving. Since the recommended daily amount that should be consumed is no more than 2300 mg, this can help in making sure this limit is not exceeded.
Carbohydrate: This is the total amount of Carbohydrates (our body’s main source of fuel) which are included in each serving. This category is broken down into two and sometimes three sections, Fibre, Sugars and Sugar Alcohols.
Fibre: Fibre is very important to our health in regulating blood sugar levels and lowering the cholesterol in our blood, so products with between 4 and 6 grams of fibre are healthy choices.
Sugars: Sugars refers to the amount of sugar in each serving. Why should we limit sugar in our diet?
Sugar Alcohols: Sugar Alcohols are a form of carbohydrate. Here’s a great article on Healthline by Joe Leech which explains what sugar alcohols are, and how they affect the body.
Here’s the thing though, how the information on the Nutrition Facts label pertains to Sugar Alcohols is a bit tricky.
Sugar Alcohols are not absorbed completely during the digestion process after eating, so of the amount that is listed on the Nutrition Facts label, our body only gets benefit of about half of it.
But, the product label has to reflect the total amount that is in the product prior to eating, so the total amount of Sugar Alcohol is included in the total Carbohydrate amount, and is listed separately in the Sugar Alcohols section.
So, if we want to find out the true total of Carbohydrate we are getting from this product after it is eaten, we have to reduce the Sugar Alcohol amount listed by half and deduct this amount from the Carbohydrate amount to arrive at a net Carbohydrate amount.
Protein: This figure refers to the amount of Protein in each serving of the product.
The bottom of the label provides a list of all of the Vitamins and Minerals that are contained in the product, and is pretty easy to read. The figures next to each item are listed in percentages. This is because the information provided refers to the percentage of each vitamin and mineral which the product supplies of the FDA recommended daily amount for an adult (based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet).
So, in the example above, Calcium is listed as 6%. This means that this cereal provides 6% of the the Calcium an adult needs to consume in a day in order to be consuming enough for a healthy diet, and I guess obviously, means that if you are trying to meet the FDA target, you have to get the other 94% somewhere else.
The above example is only one of many examples of a Nutrition Facts label. They sometimes come in different formats, but the information contained is mostly the same.
Another thing to note about the Nutrition Facts label is that in some cases, if any of the above-noted items are not contained in the product, they will simply not be listed on the label. This is not always the case, however, so some labels may list the item with the value as zero.
Another way that we can get some information about the content of the food products we buy, is by looking at the ingredient list.
Below is the Ingredient list from the same cereal box.
The Ingredient list is just that. A list of each and every ingredient contained in a particular product.
The thing about this list is that the ingredients are all listed in descending order of the weight of the ingredient as it relates to the other ingredients listed. In other words, and as is shown in the example above, the first ingredient, whole grain gluten-free oats, is the ingredient that is most prominently contained in the cereal, by weight, and the next is sugar and/or golden sugar, etc.
It is interesting to note that sugar and/or golden sugar is the second ingredient listed. This means that there is more sugar in this cereal than each of the other ingredients listed after it. Although we do not know the exact amount, this information allows us the opportunity to purchase products that have unhealthy ingredients listed near the bottom.
Nutrition Facts labels and Ingredient lists are very important and yet another way for us to try to make healthy choices for our diet. If you are yearning to learn more, the FDA provides some information here.