Things You Should Always Look For On A Nutrition Label

Although nutrition labels are on practically every food product we can buy at the supermarket, we may take for granted just how easy it is to know what's in our food. When we flip over a package, we expect to see — though sometimes ignore — the Nutrition Facts label, listing calories, nutrients, and ingredients. But mandatory nutrition labels are actually relatively new. Before the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, nutrition labeling was not always required. In fact, it was often voluntary.

You may have noticed that the familiar Nutrition Facts panel also looks a little different these days. That's because the Food and Drug Administration significantly updated it to be both easier to use and reflective of current nutrition science. The revamp included design tweaks, the addition or removal of certain elements, and new targets for some nutrients. Although it debuted in 2016, large manufacturers had until the beginning of 2020 to comply, while most manufacturers of single-ingredient foods had an additional year.

According to research conducted by OnePoll in 2018, 77 percent of American consumers regularly read nutrition labels (via New York Post). The five things they're most likely to look at are sugar, calories, fat, sodium, and total carbohydrates. While these are definitely important, the Nutrition Facts panel offers a lot of other valuable information you can use when evaluating your food choices.

Scan the nutrition label for serving size

On the revised Nutrition Facts label, serving size is now listed in a larger, bold font, making it stand out more. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), serving size now also represents how much people actually eat, not how much they "should" eat. It also doesn't necessarily correspond to what the USDA considers a "serving" from a particular food group.

For many foods, the FDA has established a standardized reference amount that all manufacturers of that food must use as their serving size. To reflect the current reality of Americans' eating habits, the FDA updated the standard serving size for certain foods during the 2016 overhaul of the Nutrition Facts label. The serving size for ice cream, for instance, increased from a half-cup to two-thirds cup, while a single serving of soda increased from 8 ounces to 12 ounces.

Packages that contain between one and two servings of a food must treat the entire package as a single serving. For foods like popcorn and macaroni and cheese that are often eaten by the package rather than by the serving, manufacturers must use a "dual column" design that shows nutrition information based on both a single serving and the entire package.

Check the calories on the Nutrition Facts label

If you read food labels, the first thing you're likely to notice is calorie content. That's especially true on the revised Nutrition Facts panel; the revamped label features calorie information in a larger font size to help it stand out more. For those who want to gain or lose weight, knowing how many calories you're consuming is important. 

According to the energy balance model of weight control, whether you gain or lose weight is a matter of balancing calories in versus calories out. If you consume more calories from food and beverages than you burn through exercise, the activities of daily life, and simply keeping all your body systems up and running, you'll gain weight. If the reverse is true, you'll lose weight.

However, you should take a label's calorie count with a grain of salt. Discover magazine revealed that calorie counts may be off by as much as 20 percent without violating FDA regulations. In addition, calculating calories in a laboratory is very different than extracting them in the real world. Calorie counts on a label don't take into account factors such as preparation method, digestibility, and an individual's unique microbiome — all of which can impact how many calories we get from food.

This is what "% Daily Value" on the nutrition label actually means

On the right side of the Nutrition Facts panel, you'll notice a column of percentages. These show the percent daily value (DV) for each nutrient. According to the Food and Drug Administration, "the % Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. The Daily Values are reference amounts (expressed in grams, milligrams, or micrograms) of nutrients to consume or not to exceed each day." It's a quick and easy way to see how much of a particular nutrient a serving of a food provides. The DVs for macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, and protein) are based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Daily Values are a "one-size-fits-all" recommendation. Unlike recommended dietary allowances and adequate intakes, DVs don't vary based on age, sex, or pregnancy status. As a result, they may be too high for some individuals and too low for others.

When the Nutrition Facts label was updated in 2016, many DVs were changed. Some — including those for fiber, total fat, calcium, and potassium — were increased, while others — such as those for sodium, total carbohydrates, and the different B vitamins — were lowered. A few, including those for protein, iron, and saturated fat, remained unchanged.

You may want to check for saturated fat on the nutrition label

As with the old Nutrition Facts labels, the new label requires manufacturers to list the saturated fat content of their foods. The daily value (DV) is set at 20 grams. This is equivalent to 180 calories, or 9 percent of calories in the 2,000-calorie diet upon which the DV is based. That's slightly less than the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommendation to keep saturated fat intake to no more than 10 percent of daily calories.

Some medical professionals recommend more stringent limits on saturated fat. The American Heart Association (AHA), for instance, suggests that saturated fat make up no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. The AHA noted, "Decades of sound science has proven [saturated fat] can raise your 'bad' cholesterol and put you at higher risk for heart disease."

Nevertheless, there's lots of research that suggests saturated fat isn't nearly as bad as we once thought. One meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 found "no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] or CVD [cardiovascular disease]." As Healthline explained, this means saturated fat is more "neutral" than "bad." Still, replacing a neutral food with a healthy food will certainly benefit your health.

Not all trans fat makes it onto the Nutrition Facts label

The Nutrition Facts label must include the trans fat content of a food. Trans fats can be naturally occurring or artificial, meaning industrially created. They are often used by manufacturers because they're inexpensive and improve the taste and texture of foods.

There's plenty of evidence, however, that trans fats negatively impact your health. They raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lower HDL ("good") cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Although meat and dairy products contain small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats, it's unclear if these have the same negative effects as the manmade kind.

Because of their link to many chronic diseases, artificial trans fats were banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 2015. There's a loophole, however. Products that contain less than 0.5 g of trans fat per serving can be labeled and sold as having no trans fats. These foods will either show "0 g" on the Nutrition Facts panel or the trans fat line will be omitted. However, they will include "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" in the ingredients list. So if you suspect a food may contain hidden artificial trans fat, make sure you review the ingredient list in addition to the nutrition label.

Scan the nutrition label for sodium

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans limit their sodium intake to no more than 2,300 mg a day. The report noted that the average American, however, consumes about 3,400 mg daily. This comes largely from grains, baked goods, processed meat, canned soups, and packaged snacks. To keep the Nutrition Facts label in line with these guidelines, the daily value (DV) was lowered from 2,400 mg to 2,300 mg. Some organizations recommend an even lower sodium intake. The American Heart Association, for instance, suggests keeping daily sodium to 1,500 mg or less for optimal heart health.

According to Harvard Medical School, excess salt can raise blood pressure, especially in individuals who already have high blood pressure. This, in turn, increases your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 45 percent of American adults have hypertension, defined as a systolic pressure greater than or equal to 130 mmHg or a diastolic pressure greater than or equal to 80 mmHg. If you're in this group, pay close attention to a food's sodium content when reading the label.

Fiber is something you should check for on the nutrition label

Included under the total carbohydrates section of the Nutrition Facts panel, you'll find a listing for dietary fiber. During the 2016 redesign of the label, the daily value (DV) was raised from 25 grams to 28 grams. So a serving of cereal with 5 grams of fiber, for instance, would show "20% DV" on an old label but only "18% DV" on a new label.

According to the Mayo Clinic, adult women should aim to get 21 to 25 grams of fiber a day, depending on their age, while men should shoot for 30 to 38 grams. Nevertheless, many Americans need to up their fiber intake; average consumption is only around 15 grams.

Fiber provides many benefits, including helping to regulate bowel movements, improving digestive health, lowering cholesterol, and preventing blood sugar spikes. It also comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber absorbs water as it moves through your intestine, creating a gel-like substance that helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, adds bulk to stool and helps it move through the digestive tract, promoting regularity. Although manufacturers are required to list total dietary fiber, denoting how much is soluble versus insoluble is optional.

Added sugar has finally made it onto the nutrition label

One of the most talked about changes to the updated Nutrition Facts panel is the mandatory labeling of added sugars. The daily value (DV) has been set at 50 grams, equivalent to 200 calories or about 12 teaspoons of sugar. On a 2,000-calorie diet (upon which DV is based), this aligns with the USDA's recommendation to keep added sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of total calories. But if you're on a lower calorie eating plan — either because you naturally need fewer calories according to your size or because you're actively trying to lose weight — the DV may not apply to you.

Because of added sugar's link to obesity, cavities, and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, some organizations suggest even stricter limits. The World Health Organization recommends limiting sugar to 5 to 10 teaspoons daily, whereas the American Heart Association (AHA) advises "limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calories allowance." The AHA considers this to be 100 calories (6 teaspoons) for women and 150 calories (9 teaspoons) for men.

Don't forget to locate protein on the nutrition label

Protein is essential not only for building muscle, but for creating blood, connective tissue, antibodies, enzymes, and more. Given its importance, it has a recommended dietary allowance (RDA) that many consider too low.

As registered dietitian Nancy Rodriguez explained in an interview with Harvard Medical School, "There's a misunderstanding not only among the public, but also somewhat in our profession about the RDA. People in general think we all eat too much protein." The RDA for protein is expressed as a formula: 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Rodriguez and many other health professionals, however, suggest that getting up to twice the RDA is a "safe and good range to aim for."

The daily value (DV) for protein, however, was not updated in 2016 and remains set at 50 grams. Based on the RDA formula, this would only be sufficient for a sedentary person weighing 139 pounds. For anyone heavier or more active than that, the DV won't be enough to meet even the RDA, let alone Rodriguez's suggestion for optimal health. While you should check the nutrition label to learn how much protein a food contains, the "%DV" included on food packaging may not reflect your needs.

Calcium is a mandatory and important item on nutrition labels

Calcium is one of four micronutrients (along with iron, vitamins A, and vitamin C) that was featured on the old Nutrition Facts label, and it's still mandatory on the revised version, and is now also accompanied by iron, potassium, and vitamin D. Calcium's daily value (DV), however, has increased from 1,000 milligrams to 1,300 milligrams. The change was made in order to better address the increased calcium needs of younger people. According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for both boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 18 is 1,300 mg, while adults need 1,000–1,200 mg, depending on age and sex.

The National Institutes of Health noted that people who are most likely not to get enough calcium include "boys and girls aged 9–13 years, girls aged 14–18 years, women aged 51–70 years, and both men and women older than 70 years." In addition to building strong bones, calcium is necessary for muscle and nerve function and helps keep blood vessels dilated.

Pay attention to the amount of iron on the nutrition label

Iron deficiency is extremely common, affecting 3 percent of men, 20 percent of non-pregnant women, and 50 percent of pregnant women, according to WebMD. It can lead to anemia, a condition in which an individual can't produce enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. This causes extreme fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and dizziness.

When the Food and Drug Administration revamped the Nutrition Facts label in 2016, they left iron alone; it remains a mandatory component of the label, with a daily value (DV) of 18 milligrams. Iron is a great example, however, of a daily value and a recommended dietary allowance (RDA) that conflict.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the RDA for adult men and postmenopausal women is only 8 milligrams, while premenopausal women should aim for 18 milligrams. Pregnant women, the group most at risk for iron deficiency, have an RDA of 27 mg. So for some consumers, iron's daily value is significantly more than what's probably needed, while for others it's much less. This highlights how important it can be to pay attention to the actual amount of a micronutrient a food contains, rather than simply looking at the %DV.

Vitamin D is often a placeholder on nutrition labels

According to a study published in the journal Cureus, almost 40 percent of American adults don't get enough vitamin D, with a blood level under 50 mmo/L. Growing concern over inadequate vitamin D intake prompted the Food and Drug Administration to make inclusion of this micronutrient mandatory on the revised Nutrition Facts label. The daily value and the units used to express it were also changed, from 400 IU to 20 mcg.

Although you'll now see vitamin D listed on every label, the number next to it will often be zero. That's because there are few foods that naturally contain vitamin D. Cod liver oil and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are rich in vitamin D, and beef liver and egg yolks have small amounts. Milk and cereals are often fortified with synthetic vitamin D. However, it's much easier to get adequate vitamin D from sun exposure.

Getting enough vitamin D — whether from food, sunshine, or supplements — is crucial for overall health. Adequate levels are associated with stronger bones and reduced risk for cancer and depression. On the other hand, deficiency can lead to the bone disease rickets, as well as increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, and dementia.

Check how much potassium is on the nutrition label

In the past, manufacturers could choose whether or not to list the potassium content of their products, but this important micronutrient is now required on the updated Nutrition Facts label. In addition, the daily value (DV) has been significantly increased from 3,500 mg to 4,700 mg.

These changes were made because Americans aren't getting enough potassium. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), average potassium intake among adult men is only 3,016 mg, while women get an average of 2,320 mg — well below both the old and new DV. Potassium is used by every cell in the body and, along with sodium, it plays a key role in regulating fluid balance. The NIH noted that "insufficient potassium intakes can increase blood pressure, kidney stone risk, bone turnover, urinary calcium excretion, and salt sensitivity (meaning that changes in sodium intakes affect blood pressure to a greater than normal extent)."

While some excellent sources of potassium, such as dried apricots and lentils, usually come in packaging with a Nutrition Facts label, many others are foods that aren't typically sold in a bag, box, or can with a nutrition label. These include bananas, squash, and potatoes.

Don't forget to check nutrition labels for possible allergens

According to research published in 2019, 10.8 percent of American adults have at least one food allergy. As the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology explained, food allergies occur when the body's immune system mistakes a harmless food for a dangerous invader and launches an attack. This misguided immune response can vary from mild to life-threatening. Common symptoms include vomiting, hives, swelling of the tongue, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Anaphylaxis may occur in the most severe cases, leading to a "whole-body allergic reaction that can impair your breathing, cause a dramatic drop in your blood pressure and affect your heart rate."

The Food and Drug Administration recognizes eight common food allergies: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, food manufacturers are required to highlight these allergens on a product's nutrition label. Allergens are usually highlighted in a "contains" statement below the ingredients list, since it may not be clear that certain ingredients contain an allergen. You may also see advisory statements such as "produced in a facility that also processes ..." that alert consumers to potential cross-contamination issues. These, however, are not required by law.