When you take a trip to the vending machine on your break, do you really know what’s in that chip bag? What about that Gatorade?
When it comes to nutrition, many people don’t understand the information on the food label. Whether you are altering or improving your diet, the information on those labels are important. Understanding food labels is easy enough, just follow these 3 steps to have a basic understanding of food label information!
Step 1. SERVING SIZE
The serving size is typically found at the top of the food label. This information will tell you what quantifies as 1 serving and how many servings are in the package/can/bottle etc. The most common mistake I’ve seen is the interpretation of serving size; especially when it comes to beverages.
Did you know that many beverages are not a single serving but 2 or more? Drinking extra calories is one of the easiest ways to go over your recommended daily caloric intake.
Take a look at this Arizona Tea label. For one can, there are 3 servings!
This means, if you were to drink the entire can, you would need to triple all the nutrition values listed. Instead of 70 calories, you would have 210 calories. To put that in prospective, an average meal ranges from 300-700 calories.
See how easy it is to make the mistake of drinking your calories?
Step 2. CALORIES
The first thing to understand is that a calorie is not a thing…it’s a unit of measurement. A calorie measures the amount of energy in the food we eat and drink. When people say there are “good” and “bad” calories, what they mean is there are calories (or energy) that are derived from nutrient dense foods like vegetables and meat (good) and calories derived from non nutrient dense foods like soda and candy (bad).
Using the same Arizona Tea label, we see that 1 serving has a total of 70 calories. The label also tells you that zero of those calories come from fat.
As mentioned before, this tea has 3 servings in one can which means the can has a total of 210 calories.
Step 3. NUTRIENTS
The nutrient section of the label has two main parts.
- On the left: It lists the source of the calories.
- On the right: it lists the intake percentages based on the average 2000 calorie/day diet.
Now, it’s important to understand that the average 2,000 calories/day diet is not a one size fits all. Some people need more or less depending on their activity levels, health concerns, and other factors. To better understand your caloric needs, you can use the caloric calculator linke below for a starting point.
Now, let’s take a look at the calories on the Arizona Tea label.
On the left of the label, we see there is no fat, cholesterol, or protein. We also see there are carbohydrates BUT those carbs come from added sugars which is something to avoid.
On the right of the label, we see there are 18 grams of carbs in this beverage that make up 6% of our daily recommended intake of carbohydrates. Because there are 3 servings in this drink, there are actually 54 grams of carbohydrates which equals 18% of our daily intake of carbohydrates.
The bottom of the nutrient section lists vitamins and minerals. The kind of vitamins and minerals listed on foods and beverages varies. Usually the list contains vitamins and minerals that are important to our diet and/or the purpose of the food or beverage.
In contrast, we see different vitamins and minerals listed on the Rockstar Recovery energy drink label. This drink is a weakness for me. As a full time employee and full time grad student… coffee doesn’t quite make the cut.
In the vitamin/mineral section on this drink, we see Vitamin B6 and B12 are listed, which are great sources for an energy boost which is relevant to the purpose of this drink. Whereas these vitamins were not listed in the Arizona Tea.
With these 3 steps, you will have a better understanding of the nutrition information provided on food labels. These basic steps to reading food labels are important to creating and maintaining a healthy diet.
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How do you manage your calories? Do you meal plan? Use a food tracker? Let us know in the comments below!