What do you look for when you’re checking out the nutrition facts on that macaroni and cheese box? Whether you’re one to zoom in on total calories or total carbs, you might be missing the real picture. Nutrition facts should be a part of your decision in what to eat or even what to buy. But interpreting the facts requires a bit of know-how, so make sure you aren’t misleading yourself.|
Understand the Power of "Serving Size"
The most important rule is to know your serving size and the number of servings in the package or can. If the label says "one cup" per serving size and "two servings per container," that means there are two cups in the whole package. If you know you’ll eat the whole package by yourself, you are going to consume two cups (1 cup x 2 servings/container = 2 cups). That means that you must double all the nutrition facts measurements to know your total intake of each nutrient – the good and the bad. Using the mac and cheese example, eating the whole package means you will have consumed 500 calories, 220 of which are from fat. You will have consumed 24 grams of fat, of which 6 grams are saturated fat.
The only time you can avoid doing the math is when you eat the exact serving size that is listed. Always compare the listed serving size to how much food you think you’ll eat and compute calories from there.
Crack the Code in "Percent Daily Value"
Confused by what all those percents really mean? The percents refer to "percent daily value" and they’re a bit trickier to interpret. The FDA bases these percents on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. Looking at cholesterol on the mac and cheese label, the FDA says that you are getting 30 milligrams per serving, or 10% of the recommended amount of cholesterol for a person eating about 2,000 calories per day. (Remember, you’re getting 20% if you eat the whole package.) So how do you know if 10% is a good or bad number?
For ease of explanation, let’s break this down into a guide that will help us look at a percent and immediately know if it is high or low for one food source. The magic numbers are 5 and 20%. Anything listed in the percent daily value column that is 5% or less is a low number for nutrients. This is a good range for things that you want to limit (fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium), but too low for things you want to eat plenty of (fiber, calcium, and vitamins). Anything listed as 20% or more is high. This is a bad range for things that you want to limit (fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium), but a good range for things you want to eat plenty of (fiber, calcium, and vitamins).
Look at "Total Fat" on the mac and cheese label. The 18% daily value is close to the high point, but if you ate the whole package, you actually ate 36% of the recommended daily amount of fat (well above our benchmark of 20%). That amount, coming from just one source of food in a day, contributes a lot of fat to your daily diet. It would leave you 64% (100% - 36% = 64%) of your fat allowance for all other meals, drinks, and snacks you would eat that day.
If your daily goal is well below 2,000 calories for your weight loss plan, then use the percents as a frame of reference (realizing you need to be below the percents shown, per serving). Or, you may find it simpler to keep track of grams and milligrams instead of the percents. The Nutrition Facts footnote gives a scale in grams and milligrams for recommended amounts of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and fiber based on 2,000- and 2,500- calorie diets. (This footnote does not appear on small packages where there is no room for it.)
The percent daily value also offers a great way to watch your diet without completely giving up your favorite foods. For example, if you ate one serving of macaroni and cheese but ensured you had a low fat intake for all other foods you ate that day, you made a successful trade off. When you really want a food that is high in fat, always balance it with healthy low-fat foods in the same day.
Quick Interpretation Guide
Hunting for Hidden Sugar
Sugar is another ingredient that many people pay close attention to. Ready for a little experiment? Grab a jar of sugar, a measuring spoon, a plate and a can of regular soda. Then, dump one teaspoon of sugar onto the plate. Repeat this nine more times. Do you know what you have, besides a mess? The amount of sugar in one 12-ounce can of soda! Just look at that mound!
Now locate the sugar listing on the soda's nutrition label—40 grams. Four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. Do the math. That innocent can of pop contains 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 empty calories.
Even if you don’t drink regular soda, the typical American now eats the equivalent of about 31 teaspoons (124 grams) of added sugar every day. That sugar alone adds up almost 500 extra calories—about 25% of the average person's caloric intake. WOW!
Less is More
So how much should you limit your sugar intake? Several health organizations suggest that added sugar should be limited to no more than 10 percent of your total calories. This does not include naturally occurring sugars found in fruits (fructose) and dairy products (lactose). The chart below lists the maximum recommended daily sugar intake based on various calorie levels.
Maximum Sugar Intake
Don’t just use the nutrition facts to track the nutrients you want to cut back on. Use it to track the nutrients you want to increase (like fiber, calcium and vitamins)! Whether you’re a stickler for tracking every fat gram and calorie per day or someone who just wants a rough estimate of her daily nutrient intake, the nutrition facts label is a handy tool. Learn how to use it for foods you eat frequently and anything new that you are tempted to incorporate into your regular meal plan.