- 4 Jul 2011
Reading Food Labels - Nutrition Facts Explained
The key to controlling your weight and improving your health is quite simply eating right. Read your food labels and check over the nutrition facts to ensure that you are eating lots of the good stuff, and little (or none) of the bad stuff. That's pretty easy to understand.
However, what might be slightly tougher for some people to understand are the food labels themselves. What does it all mean? What should you be looking for? What are all of these nutrients? Which ones should be high? Which should be low? Which should purposely be eaten, and which should purposely be avoided altogether?
If you've ever turned over your package of food and asked any of these questions, you've found the right place. It's time to get the answers.
Typical food label showing nutrition facts.
Let's start at the top and work our way down.
At the very top of all food labels (right under the words "Nutrition Facts") is the serving size. This is one of the most important pieces of information on the label because all of the nutrition information shown is based on this exact amount. If you ignore the serving size, the rest of the information is useless to you, so be sure to notice it first.
Depending on what you're eating/drinking, the serving size could be described a few different ways. The most common are grams, ounces, cups, and pieces. Grams tend to be listed most of the time even when the serving size is first listed a different way. For example... Serving Size: 2 Pieces (100g)
If you saw this example serving size on your food label, it would mean that all of the nutrition facts shown are for 2 pieces (or 100 grams) of that food. That means that if you only ate 1 piece (or 50g), you can cut all of the nutrition information in half. If you ate 4 pieces (200g), then you should double all of the nutrition facts. This is all pretty easy to figure out when your food's serving size is actually listed in "pieces" (or even something like "cups" or "scoops"), but much of the time, this isn't the case.
A lot of the time serving sizes tend to be given in a unit of measurement that is nearly impossible to tell by eye, such as grams and ounces. In these cases (and the above cases as well), the only real way to get an accurate idea of exactly how many servings you are eating is by weighing your food out on a food scale. Obviously this isn't too practical if you're eating out, but for when you're home, it's perfect. (I use and fully recommend the Salter 2001 5-Pound Microtronic Kitchen Scale.)
Most food scales weigh food in both grams and ounces. This will cover pretty much every single food you'll ever eat, as, like I mentioned before, grams are typically always given as a serving size.
Servings Per Container
Servings per container tells you how many of the above serving sizes are found in the entire box/bag/can/jar/package/whatever that your food came in. So, if a serving size was 2 cups, and it says "Servings Per Container: 5," that means there are 10 cups in that container, and 5 total servings. Pretty simple.
Next up on our food labels is calories. This represents the total calories in exactly 1 serving of the food/drink. And, if you are trying to lose weight, gain weight, or just avoid gaining or losing weight, calories are easily the most important nutrition fact on the entire label. See, calories are energy. If you consume more total calories than your body actually needs for energy, you gain weight. If you consume less calories than your body needs for energy, you lose weight.
Also keep in mind the serving size. It seems silly to repeat this over and over for all of the nutrition facts below, so let me mention this just once right here. If you are eating/drinking exactly 1 serving, then the calorie information given is the number of calories you have consumed. However, if you ate 2 servings, you must now double the amount of calories to figure out how many you are actually consuming. If you ate 3 servings, then you ate 3 times the number of calories shown (and all other nutrition facts as well). The same goes for if you ate half of 1 serving (divide all the nutrition facts in half).
So, just remember to take the specific serving size you are eating into account when figuring out all of nutrition facts on the food label.
Calories From Fat
Here's one that tends to confuse some people... calories from fat. First and foremost, NO, you do NOT need to add "calories from fat" to the amount shown for "calories" to get the total calorie amount in 1 serving of your food. "Calories" already includes the "calories from fat" (and calories from protein and carbs well). So, it's already showing you the total calories in 1 serving.
So then, what is calories from fat and why is it shown on food labels? That's actually a good question. As far as I'm concerned, it's pretty much useless information. Honestly, I can't find any real use for it being there, and, in my opinion, you can ignore it altogether. I'll explain a bit more about why below.
Next up is total fat. This is the total amount of fat in 1 serving size. Note the word "total." Why? Because typically the next few nutrition facts listed are specific types of fat. You do NOT need to add them all together with "total fat." Why? Because "total fat" already IS the TOTAL of all of the different types of fat in this food/drink. There's no need to add anything.
It's hard to say how high or low you want the total fat of your food to be, because, like I just mentioned, there are different types of fat. Some of them are terrible and should be avoided as much as possible, while others are actually great for you and should purposely be eaten (to a certain extent, of course). I'll explain which you want to be high and which you want to be low below when I explain each type of fat.
But, before I do that, let me also mention that 1 gram of fat has 9 calories. So, if your food has 10 grams of fat, it contains 90 calories from fat. Sound familiar? Yup, as long as you can do basic first grade math, you can figure out "calories from fat" all by yourself, which makes listing it on food labels even more pointless.
What does this whole 9 calories per gram thing mean to you? Not much. It does explain why foods high in fat also tend to be high in calories, but, that's about it. Paying attention to the amount of total fat and the amount of each type of fat is much more important. Speaking of which, let's go through these different fats right now...