What you need to know to make the best use of the Nutrition Facts Label
The nutrition facts label can help you make better food choices, but only if you know what you are looking for. Labels for similar diced tomato products are shown side by side for reference.
Know your estimated calorie needs. If you don’t know what your calorie limit is for the day, the calories listed on the Nutrition Facts Label won’t be very useful. Look at the calories per serving and the serving size to estimate how many calories you would eat and then compare that to your daily calorie needs. In the example, ½ cup of diced tomatoes has about 35 calories. If you use the whole can in a recipe meant for two, you’d eat about two servings or approximately 70 calories. For a low-calorie food like canned tomatoes, multiple servings don’t increase calories very much, but with a higher calorie food it would be more important to watch portion sizes.
Know what you probably need more of. Most Americans do not consume enough fiber, potassium, calcium, and Vitamin D. Increase your intake of these important nutrients by consuming more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low fat dairy or dairy alternatives like soy or almond milk. A single food seldom provides 100% of any nutrient, which is why the dietary recommendations emphasize a variety of foods in the diet. One serving of canned tomatoes would contribute to your daily intake of potassium, fiber, calcium, and Vitamin C for the day as well as hundreds of other nutrients and micronutrients not shown on a nutrition facts label.
Know what you probably need less of. Most Americans consume too much sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars, and alcohol. Although ‘sugars’ are listed on the nutrition facts label, added sugars are not. Some foods (fruit, dairy, vegetables) are naturally high in sugar, but may not have added sugars. Check the ingredients list to see if your food has added sugar. In our example, the label on the left is a ‘no salt added’ product and it contains about one-tenth of the amount of sodium as the product on the right. Although both products contain little sugar, the product on the left has a small amount of added sugar as seen listed in the ingredients list. These tomatoes contain no fat or cholesterol; typical of most vegetables.
Use the ‘% Daily Value’ column to know if a food is high or low in a nutrient. Because the percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, they might not be accurate for you. However, they can be used to determine relative nutrient content. In general, foods that provide 5% or less of a specific nutrient are low and those that provide 20% or more are high. In our example, the tomatoes on the left are a very good source of Vitamin C. Why aren’t the tomatoes on the left? I’m not sure – this stumped me! The FDA allows citric acid to be called Vitamin C because, although not identical, they are very similar in structure and function. However, both ingredients lists show citric acid in about the same amount! My guess is that the company decided to list the citric acid as Vitamin C on one label and not the other.
Don’t forget the food! The nutrition facts label is a nice tool, but don’t forget its limitations. It only lists a very small number of nutrients and there are a lot of things it doesn’t tell us. Some foods can seem healthy if they have vitamins and minerals added (like cereals), but it’s always better to get nutrients from a whole food. All healthy diet recommendations come back to the same basic ideas: choose whole and less processed foods (shorter ingredients list); eat a variety of foods from all the food groups; and eat smaller portions.
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