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How to Decode Nutrition Panels and Label Claims


Written by Alexa Cortese, web intern

Many of us don't consciously consider packaging and marketing when it comes to food shopping, but it can be a huge factor in what we decide to pile into our carts. Food companies make health claims so often that it's hard to know which ones are true and which ones are simply trying to sell more items! Even more important than understanding these health claims, however, is understanding exactly how to decipher the nutrition labels. That’s right, that panel on the back or side of the box you’d rather not look at (or maybe you look but don’t fully understand). Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when grocery shopping, courtesy of Jill Marie Hively, R.D.

  • The most important thing to keep in mind when reading nutrition labels? Serving size and servings per container, Hively says. This gives you a clear label of the nutrients included relative to the amount of food you are consuming. In other words, a food that’s only 100 calories may sound like a smart option until you realize that a serving size is only ¼ cup (or not enough to really fill you up!). Use MyPlate as a good example of proportions, Hively recommends, and familiarize yourself with visual cues—a three-ounce serving of protein should be about the size of the palm of your hand. 
  • Percent daily values (DV) can also be helpful. Generally, aim for foods that contain less than 5 percent of the daily value for cholesterol or saturated fat. If the label says one serving contains 20 percent or more of your DV of a vitamin or mineral, that a food is a "good source" of that particular nutrient.

For the scoop about "natural," "made with whole grains" and more, keep reading.

  • Look for specific claims that link an nutrient to the prevention of a certain disease (for example, calcium is proven to prevent osteoporosis). These claims have been approved by the FDA. More abstract claims are not as closely regulated.
  • The USDA has stipulations about meat that can be labeled with the word "natural." “This means meat and poultry that contains no artificial ingredients or color, and are minimally processed,” Hively says. Unfortunately, the FDA, which regulates many other foods, does not have such regulations for the use of the word natural. Generally, foods without synthetic colors or flavors can be considered natural, but since this is not strictly regulated, labels can be misleading. Check the ingredients!
  • Speaking of ingredients, Hively says that fewer are generally better. "Anything that contains more than five ingredients is probably more processed," she adds. Skip products with unpronounceable ingredients, since they're most likely chemicals you should not be ingesting on a daily basis—or at all. Focus on nutrient dense foods that are in their natural form, or as they would be found in nature, Hively suggests.
  • Whole-grain wheat and whole-wheat are the smartest grain options. Enriched wheat flour means that the wheat has been processed, bleached, with nutrients added back in later. For the most nutrition, look for ingredients that say "100 percent whole-wheat." (Hint: If there are more than five grams of fiber per serving, the wheat being used is probably whole). This is tricky territory: Some wheat products are made using 25 percent whole grain, while the other 75 percent is enriched and claims to be “made with whole grains.” The company is allowed to say the product is made with whole grains on the front of the package, and if you don’t read the ingredients more in depth, you may not be aware you were getting ¾ enriched flour.

Now tell us: What confuses you most about nutrition labels or claims? We can tackle your burning questions in a future post!