Decoding the Nutrition Fact Panel
By mwtadic on December 14, 2012
Maria E Tadic
As a food enthusiast and nutrition expert I'm always aware of what is actually going into the food I hungrily devour on a daily basis. If you don't already, you should considering whats in your food more closely as well. Not being aware of what's inside your food and ultimately what you're putting into your body can put you and your health at serious risk. Luckily the government has set up a nice rule for food companies that requires them to put this information right on their products. You'll find it on the Nutrition Fact Panel (see picture on the left). Some of you may use this already and some may not. But I'm here to help you decode this ever important label so that you can educate yourself the best you can and make informed decisions about your food. So here goes...
Serving Size. Hands down, the first thing I look at on this fact panel is the serving size. It tells me how much of the food I can eat for a given number of calories, fat, cholesterol, etc... If you don't look at the serving size, the rest of the fact panel becomes pointless. Lets say you're watching the amount of fat you eat so you pick up a low-fat ice cream. If you don't look at the serving size and down half the container, that ice cream probably isn't low fat anymore. The servings per container is somewhat self explanatory. It's how many of those pre-sized servings are in that box.
Calories. One of the next items I look at is calories. It's probably the most popular item that people look at when reading the nutrition panel. It tells you how many calories are in one serving of the food. I used to focus much more heavily on how many calories were in a food. But its important to look at the whole picture (meaning we gotta check everything else out before coming to an executive decision). So let's move on.
% Daily Value. This isn't actually an ingredient or a nutrient in the food. This is a numerical value, a percentage, that's based on your daily recommended amounts. Everyone is allotted a "daily value" or recommended amount of calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates and all the vitamins/minerals. You want to try to meet or stay under (in the case of sodium, cholesterol, trans and saturated fat) these recommended values for optimal health. This percentage of daily value tells you how much one serving of food will provide you towards that recommended amount.
Fat. The amount of fat listed on the nutrition panel is a multi-step process. First listed is "total fat" which is the total amount of all types of fat (in grams) per serving. It includes heart healthy fats and the not-so-good fats like trans- and saturated fats. Then the total fat is broken down into its component parts of saturated and trans fats. You want both of these guys to be as close to zero as possible (especially the trans fat). However, fat is 100% necessary for the normal functioning of your body - so please don't avoid it, just choose those heart healthy ones instead.
Cholesterol and Sodium. Two separate sections, but overall not too much to say here. You know its bad. I know its bad. Keep it to a minimum guys.
Total Carbohydrates. Total carbohydrates is similar to the total fat listing - it is the total amount of all types of carbohydrates present in the food. As you can see, total carbs includes fiber and sugar. In the case of fiber, the higher the better (may help lower cholesterol). The sugar listed here is both naturally occurring sugar AND added sugars. Generally this number should be on the lower side. However, don't forget that foods such as fruit and dairy products do contain natural sugars and both of these should be eaten as a part of a regular diet.
Protein. Protein is an important part of your diet - it becomes the building blocks of all your cells. I can't really give you a high or low number for this because depending on the food it will vary greatly. Although when I'm looking for breakfast cereal, I do look for those with higher protein (like around 10 g/serving) because otherwise I'll be hungry within an hour. You just want to make sure you're getting lean, high quality protein at each meal.
Vitamin/Mineral List. This is an important part! The whole purpose of why humans eat food is to get all the nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, that we need to survive on a daily basis. You need to know how much of these your food provides so that you can plan your diet accordingly. The required 4 nutrients in this section are Vitamin A and C, Iron and Calcium. Many food companies, especially cereal/bread companies, will provide additional vitamin or mineral information. Though they don't have to. But your goal is to get 100% of that recommended daily amount we talked about earlier.
Ingredient List. Although listed last, this is probably one of the most important pieces of information on the product. This is a detailed list of everything that food company put into the food from the most abundant ingredient (listed first) to the least (listed last). When I'm reading over this, I really try to adhere to my "5 ingredient rule" - don't buy anything with 5 or more ingredients and especially ingredients you can't pronounce. This helps ensure you're getting a more natural, unprocessed product. Though there are exceptions to the rule, its good to keep in mind.
Now that you're an "official nutrition fact panel" decoder you can begin making those executive decisions on the foods you buy. As I mentioned before, I personally don't focus too much on calories. I like getting the most "bang for my calorie buck." Meaning...I want a product with high amounts of the good stuff (fiber, vitamins, minerals, etc) for a reasonable amount of calories or fat. You may choose something else to focus on like the sodium content, or the amount of fiber in the product. But, whatever you decide to do, the goal is to understand what you're reading and ultimately being able to make educated decisions about your food.