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Food manufacturing companies in the U.S. are required by law to label all food products. They are legally required to provide information about calories, fat, sugar, salt, and nutritional values so that consumers can make informed decisions about their purchases.

A lot of this information can feel alien, though, which ends up defeating the purpose. Understanding nutrition labels can help you make more nutritional choices in your day to day dietary choices.

Look Past the Packaging

Many food manufacturers try to attract customers by labeling their products as "healthy." While these claims are appealing in their simplicity, there isn't any legal requirement around which foods can be given this label.

Therefore, it’s important to take the time to read the nutrition label fully, as these claims often don't give you the whole story.

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Get to Grips with Serving Sizes

Nutritional values are usually given per serving size, which is different for each product. This measurement is given as a recognizable unit, like pieces, cups, or slices, and as an amount in metric units such as grams.

If you eat more or less than one serving, you will need to adjust the values on the label accordingly. Keep in mind, this is not a recommended serving size, but a figure based on what the average person consumes.

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Understand Percent Daily Value

Nutrition labels contain a value called the Percent Daily Value, written as % Daily Value or %DV. This is a percentage based on how much the indicated amount of a product contributes to the recommended daily amount of each nutrient for a person following a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet.

This value can give you an idea of whether a food is high or low in a specific nutrient — for example, if it is a grain product with 3% DV of fibre, it's probably not the more nutritious choice — but not everyone is on a 2000-calorie diet and many people have different needs based on health conditions and goals. In other words, this is a fine reference, but shouldn't necessarily be used to calculate how much you're getting.

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Consider the Calorie Content

Calories are displayed in large font near the top of the nutrition label. The average person requires around 2,000 calories per day to stay healthy, but this varies depending on age, sex, body composition, and activity level.

Calories are often what people pay most attention to as it’s easy to put into context, but not all calories are the same. Some foods, like sugary snacks and soda, contain calories but have very little nutritional value—these are called empty calories as they are of limited benefit to the body. On the other hand, it's also not ideal to avoid a food that's "high" in calories but packed with tons of essential nutrients.

Nutritional information concept. hand use the magnifying glass to zoom in to see the details of the nutrition facts from salad bowl asiandelight / Getty Images

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Know Your Fats

Not all fats are the same. Unsaturated fat is essential for the normal functioning of the body, but saturated fats can negatively impact health and should be limited.

A nutritional label lists saturated fat separately, so this is the value to pay attention to. You'll also see a line for cholesterol. Cholesterol found in food does not have a big impact on health for most people, but eating high-cholesterol foods only in moderation is generally best.

Trans fat is the most harmful to health, but has been removed from most food products after it was banned in the U.S. in 2015. It’s important to note that because fat adds flavor, manufacturers often replace fats with sugar, so low-fat foods are not necessarily more nutritious.

Nutrition label; calories, fat and sodium content jaminwell / Getty Images

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Keep an Eye Out For Salt

Most Americans consume too much salt, and 70% of this comes from packaged foods, not from salt added during cooking or eating. Too much salt can be bad for heart health, so it’s important not to overdo it—the recommended daily allowance is 2,300 milligrams per day.

Remember that a nutrition label will list salt as sodium. Look out for sodium in unexpected places—not all food containing sodium tastes salty — cereals and breads, for example — and food labeled as salt- or sodium-free may still contain up to 5 milligrams of salt.

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Look Out for Added Sugars

The carbohydrate section of the nutrition label is the most complex. It lists total carbohydrates first and then breaks them down into dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars. The most important value here is added sugars.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that added sugars should not make up more than 10% of total calorie intake. This can be complicated to calculate on an individual basis, so for your general meal foods, you can use the percent Daily Value as a guide and look for a value below 10%.

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Don't Forget About Protein

Protein is essential for good overall health, but the amount we should eat is a hotly debated topic. A nutrition label will not give a percent Daily Value for protein as individual needs vary.

Current guidelines, based on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, suggest a daily intake of around 50-175 grams per day or 15-30 grams per meal. Some protein-rich foods, specifically red meats, are high in saturated fat, which is bad for heart health, so looking for protein sources with lower amounts of this less nutritious compound is ideal.

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Check Out the Nutritional Values

Nutrition labels include information about the amount of vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and iron in a product. This is because many Americans struggle to get enough of these important micronutrients and deficiencies are common.

If a product contains folate or folic acid, which is important during pregnancy, this will also be listed. Foods with high values in this section might be more nutritious, but also keep in mind that some moderately nutritious foods add in these vitamins, too.

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Read the Ingredient List

The ingredient list is another place to find useful information about food products. Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, so look for products that have a healthful ingredient, like a vegetable or a whole grain, listed first.

Products with shorter ingredient lists or containing ingredients with short, simple names are usually less processed and contain fewer additives, but there is a lot of conflicting information and just because a food is processed doesn't necessarily mean it is not nutritious.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.