Why are Nutrition Facts Important?
Think of it this way, when your car needs oil or a part changed, you wouldn’t just stick whatever oil you grab off the shelf and pour it in would you? You would look at the label, see which one you needed, or you would go to an expert to figure out what you needed to make your car go. It’s sort of like that, but a lot of us still don’t take the time to look at exactly what we are putting into our bodies. Sure once in awhile, especially when out to eat, we pick what sounds good or what we know taste good, and that’s okay too but in order to achieve our best health, it should be a priority to at least be aware of what is in our food and how that affects our food choices.
First, Turn Your Package Around!
Have you seen the following stickers on the front of some packages? These logos are plastered on ice cream to potatoes chips, which is a bit of an oxymoron. Don’t be fooled by the front of the box saying “All-Natural” or “Healthy”. In short, these terms are not indicators of the nutritional value of the product (see our article on natural foods for more info).
Let’s look at the new nutrition label compared to the old one, seen below.
These new labels are redesigned by the FDA in order to help consumers make better food choices. According to the FDA, changes were made to reflect new data on the link between diet and chronic disease, including obesity. The first change you may notice is that calorie amount is bigger and bolder, making it easier to read. Starting at the top, you can see number of servings and serving size are switched, likely to avoid confusion for some products that may “look” like one serving (think 20 oz soda bottles).
The next change is the amount of added sugar is now listed under total carbohydrates. There has been a big push for companies to disclose added sugar in their products and a big advertising campaign for products to have “no added sugar”. A common item, for example, would be orange juice advertised as “no added sugar”. It is still important to look at the overall calories and carbohydrates in the product to determine if it is a good choice. Same goes for products labeled as low fat, fat free, or “natural” foods (for more info on sugar, check out our other article Sugar 101).
At the bottom of the label, you can see that the vitamins and minerals listed have changed. This update is congruent with the rise of kidney disease, which some people must watch potassium intake, and the rise in Vitamin D deficiency. At the very bottom, there is a more clear explanation of the Daily Value percentage. These are based on a 2,000 calorie diet and is a general recommendation for people in good health. A Registered Dietitian can help specify your recommended daily values to meet your nutrition needs.
When looking at the ingredients, it’s important to note that they are listed from largest to smallest amount. Looking at the label below, there may be a lot of ingredients you might not have heard of before. Some, like thiamine mononitrate and riboflavin, are also indicated by their other name, Vitamins B1 and thiamine, respectively. Other ingredients, like monocalcium phosphate, may sound alarming, but it is a common leavening agent. Other ingredients, such as corn syrup, dextrose, and polydextrose are types of sugars. A “nutrition tip” I hear often is don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce. This is to generally avoid processed foods and avoid additives and preservatives, but with this same logic, most people would avoid quinoa and pyridoxine hydrochloride (which is Vitamin B6). Basically, if an ingredient name sounds scary, it’s best to look it up to see what it exactly it is and see if that food as a whole is suitable for you.
So What’s Most Important?
All aspects of the nutrition label are important but some parts may be more pertinent than other to some. For example, Diabetics should generally focus on total carbohydrate amounts whereas heart failure patients should focus more on sodium and fat content. Ingredient list is likely a priority to those with food allergies. Overall, it’s important to look that the product as a whole in order to decide if it fits in your diet, not if it’s “good” or “bad”. Remember, everything can fit in a balanced diet, as long as it’s in moderation.