I am always surprised when I visit with people about their food, and we turn the package over to look at the Nutrition Facts and they say things like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that had so much ______!” or “I never thought to look at the _____ level in this.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates how Nutrition Facts must be presented on food labels. They even have rules about the font type and lettering size. That is why the Nutrition Facts on all US foods look the same. (On a side note: I love to look at food products in other countries to see how their Nutrition Facts are presented.)
This is a Nutrition Fact label from some beef jerky. I downloaded it off the internet.
Under the large words “Nutrition Facts”, the label will tell you what is considered a serving size. The serving size should provide it in a weight increment (grams, ounces), and if applicable, a number or pieces. This is where I always get myself into trouble. My idea of a serving and the food manufacturer’s idea of a serving may not always be the same (especially Girl Scout cookies). Nevertheless, the serving size on the label is what the Nutrition Facts are based on. If you eat more than that (like, a whole box of Thin Mints), you’re getting more calories, fat, sodium, or whatever, than what’s in one serving.
In addition to serving size, is Servings Per Container. This is really helpful when the serving size can’t be counted (like number of cookies). If there are three servings per container, then you know you can eat about 1/3 of the package and be getting about one serving. If you decide to eat the whole package (or box of cookies), then you just have to multiply the number of servings you ate by the facts on the label.
Total fat is usually a nutrient that you are trying to limit. Under Total Fat, the information is further broken down into Saturated Fat and Trans Fat. Saturated Fats are the more solid fats like those found in coconut oil, beef tallow, and butter. The Dietary Guidelines suggest that you limit saturated fat to 10% of your calorie intake or about 20 grams per day.
Trans fats are found naturally in some foods and are produced in some foods during cooking and processing. They are actually unsaturated fats that have been altered so that they act like saturated fats in foods and in your body (that may be a topic for a whole other blog post). There is no dietary requirement for trans fats, so no percentage will be provided, but the Dietary Guidelines suggest that you limit your trans fat intake, so the amount found in foods provided on the nutrition label.
Cholesterol is going to be found in most foods that come from animal sources. The recommended daily value for cholesterol is 300 mg.
Sodium is most commonly associated with salt. Although sodium is a requirement for basic metabolism, Americans generally consume more sodium than what is recommended (2,300 mg). Sodium can be ‘hidden’ in lots of foods. Most people associate high sodium levels with salty snacks and processed meats (bologna, hot dogs, ham), but foods like breads, cheese, and especially ready-to-eat meals like Asian noodle dishes or instant soups. Several foods contain sodium and sodium content is related to total calorie intake. It’s very hard to control sodium intake, but I try to keep an eye on it.
Carbohydrates are made up of sugars, starch and fiber, and contribute to calories at a rate of about 4 calories per gram. Sugars are just simple carbohydrates, which are just rings of carbons. The sugars are what your body breaks down for energy (and to make fat). Complex carbohydrates are those same rings of carbons all linked together. In starches, the sugars are linked together in a manner that our body can digest and break down into sugars that we can use for energy. In fiber, the sugars are linked together in a manner that our body cannot break down. So, we don’t absorb the sugars and the fiber just moves on through our digestive system.
This is a package of summer sausage found in my aunt’s fridge. According to the ingredient statement, pork is the most prevalent ingredient (found in the highest percentage), followed by beef and salt. Another thing to remember is that if an ingredient is NOT in the ingredient list, it is NOT in the food. No matter what you read on the internet or see on TV, if it’s in the food, it has to be in the ingredient list.
I hope this is helpful. I really enjoy it when I see people turn their food packages over to look at the Nutrition Facts and learn something new. It’s important to know as much as you can about the food you are feeding your family, but be sure that you know the facts.
I’ve included a few extra links if you’d like some more in-depth information. This is a PowerPoint file from FDA about nutrition labels and here is an FDA video – Food Labels and You. There is also lots of information about the dietary guidelines and where our nutrients come from in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.