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Learning to read nutrition labels

March 21, 2012

Do you find yourself confused over all the nutrition info and marketing on food? With practice at label reading, we can become smarter nutrition detectives. Reading the nutrition panel tells us what is in our food and allows us to easily compare products so that we can make healthier choices.

To get started, we must look at the serving size.

The serving size on the nutrition panel shows how much of the food item we should eat to get in all of the nutrients listed on the label. For example, if the serving size is 1 cup. The label will tell you how much nutrition you will get per 1 cup. (NOTE: Many packages contain more than one serving, so measuring out the serving size amount is important. If you eat double servings you have to double the nutrition stats).

Do you know the 5/20 rule?

When looking at the nutrition label, the far right hand side lists the percent daily value of each nutrient. Daily value is based off of a 2,000 calorie diet and represents the total amount of each nutrient to eat over the course of an entire day.

A healthy diet is LOW in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugar, and HIGH in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. So begin thinking in percentages to consider the 5/20 rule.

  • 5% or less means the food is LOW in that nutrient
  • 20% or more means the food is HIGH in that nutrient

Let’s talk about the food groups and how to shop using the 5/20 rule.

Grains, specifically whole grains, contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Some grains can be devoid of nutrition, with no fiber and tons of added sugar.
  • For cereals, granola bars, and snacks, aim for foods with more than 3 grams of fiber and less than 10 grams of sugar.
  • Choose cereals with more than a 50% daily value of vitamins and minerals, especially those with iron and folate.
Fresh fruits and vegetables don’t usually come with a nutrition label, but are naturally high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Aim to make ½ your plate produce!

Meats can come with a hefty price tag of saturated fats and salt.

  • Go lean by choosing meats with the word “loin” or “top” or “center” like tenderloin, top sirloin, top round,  strip, t-bone, center-loin chops, center-cut bacon, extra lean ground beef, skinless chicken breast.
  • When buying processed, pre-packaged, frozen meats, and deli meats, follow the 5/20 rule for sodium and fat. Choose items that are less than 20% sodium, saturated, and trans fat. Be strategic by comparing different products to make sure you are getting the lowest percentage available. 
Dairy is a great source of calcium and vitamin D, but can be high in sodium and saturated fat.
  • Look for reduced-fat cheeses and low-fat (1% or skim) milk and yogurt. Choose items like 1/3 reduced-fat cream cheese and butter spreads blended with healthy oils. **Note: Depending on the recipe, I may purchase full-fat cheese to get the flavor and creaminess desired, however, I am being mindful of the “total fat” of the dish for balance.
  • Be conscious of the sodium content in cheese. For example, it’s simple to switch to lower-sodium cottage cheese.
**Note: When cooking low-salt/salt-free, adding a simple garnish of freshly grated parmesan gives a salty bite, but it’s still low-sodium over all. Look at the big picture!

Canned foods like soups, broth, and vegetables can be loaded with unnecessary salt.

  • To keep sodium intake in check, choose low-sodium and no-salt added or less than 5% daily value sodium. Trust me, they sell it, and it’s tasty.
Processed foods can carry a heavy dose of unhealthy fat, sodium, and added sugar so follow the 5/20 rule for these nutrients. Again, choosing items with less than 20% daily value for saturated fat and sodium; and <10g sugar per serving. The lower the better.

By learning to read the labels and using the 5/20 rule, you can easily teach your kids how to be nutrition detectives too. Make it a game by starting out in the cereal aisle, letting them choose their favorites, and teaching them these strategies to make smart choices. Healthiest cereal wins and goes into the shopping cart!

Share with us. Do you take an extra second to read nutrition labels? Does it influence what goes into your family’s bellies?