Most food products have a nutrition facts label. But what does this information mean, such as all of the numbers and ingredients? When viewing a nutrition facts label there are a few steps a consumer should take to help understand all of this information.
Understanding A Nutrition Label
All nutrition facts labels have the same format, with serving size and calories listed on top. Below this will be a list of essential nutrients including: total fat (with the subgroup of fat sources), cholesterol, sodium, potassium, total carbohydrates (with the subgroup of dietary fiber and sugar) and finally protein. In the box below the essential nutrients are some vitamins and minerals the product may contain. Finally, there will be the ingredient list.
It’s important to understand each line of the nutrition facts label. The serving size for the product helps you determine if you actually consume the amount listed as the serving size. For example, the serving size for ready-to-eat cereal is one cup. If you eat two cups of cereal, you would need to multiply the numbers on the nutrition facts label by two.
The Macronutrients: Fats, Proteins, and Carbs
Next, we want to view the calories and the calories from fat. This section will help you determine if this product will keep you within your needed calorie range for the day. You can find more information on determining your nutrient needs for a given day by visiting our TrueSport Nutrition Guide.
Total fat, listed beneath the calories line, is important for determining what types of fat the product contains. Fats such as mono- and poly- unsaturated fats are known to be more heart healthy fats while saturated and trans-fats can be detrimental to overall health. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends avoiding products that contain any industrially manufactured trans-fat, meaning if the words “partially hydrogenated oils” are listed anywhere in the ingredients, this is not a good option to consume.1
Protein is also included on each nutrition label. Protein helps with repairing and rebuilding muscle following exercise as well as keeping our bodies functioning properly. Protein helps with repairing and rebuilding muscle following exercise as well as keeping our bodies functioning properly. Protein needs also vary for athletes depending upon their activity. For more on how to determine the amount of protein you need, visit our Nutrition Guide.
Athletes receive a large amount of their energy from carbohydrates, therefore choosing whole grains as well as items with little to no added sugar can assist in meeting carbohydrate and fiber needs. The Nutrition Guide also provides guidelines to calculate carbohydrate needs for athletes.
Cholesterol, Potassium, and Fiber
Cholesterol is listed below the fat section. Cholesterol is only found in animal products. Consuming cholesterol does not have an effect on blood cholesterol levels; however it is important to know what you are fueling your body with in terms of food choices.
Below cholesterol is the product’s sodium quantity. While some health conditions recommend a low sodium diet around 1500 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommend consuming no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day.2 To put this number in perspective, one teaspoon of salt contains 2,400 mg of sodium.
Potassium will also be found on most nutrition facts labels as it is an important mineral in a well-rounded diet. Found in many fruits and vegetables, potassium helps your muscles contract, maintain fluid levels, and maintain a normal blood pressure. Athletes and the general population are encouraged to consume a potassium rich diet.
Total carbohydrates with the subgroup of dietary fiber and sugar comprise the next section on the nutrition facts label. The AHA recommends 25-35 grams of fiber for children and adults ages four and older.3 Recently, the World Health Organization proposed new guidelines regarding sugar intake. The proposed guideline suggests reducing sugar intake to less than 10% of total calorie intake a day, with a potential added benefit if less than 5% of added sugar was consumed.4
Other Vitamins and Minerals
A nutrition facts label will also have a section with vitamins and minerals listed, as well as percentages. The percent daily values are the amount of that nutrient based on a 2,000 calorie diet for healthy adults. Even if your calorie needs are different, the percent daily values can be useful. If the nutrient has a percent daily value of 5% or less, it is considered low in that nutrient. If the percent daily value is 20% or higher then the product may be a good source of this nutrient.5
You should also become familiar with the ingredient list when shopping. Ideally, you should purchase items that have been minimally processed, which means that you should look for items with short ingredient lists. The ingredient that weighs the most, or is most plentiful, is listed first. The Food and Drug Administration has recently published proposed changes to the nutrition facts label.6 Some of these changes include serving sizes that individuals actually consume, including added sugars under the carbohydrates section and much more. To find out more information for proposed changes, visit www.fda.gov.
You can also work with a registered dietitian. Visit the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition Group at www.scandpg.org to search for a sports dietitian in your area.