Dissecting Nutritional Labels

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

If you’re tuned in to the new Dietary Guideline’s discussion, then you know there are some serious contention points in this latest re-vamp of the guidelines. However you feel about these nutrition recommendations, they do help to offer a template that consumers can follow, for baseline food rules that support general health. If the guidelines are adopted as expected, then you will see:

  • An emphasis on consumption of fruits and vegetables as the base of your daily diet

  • Limits set on daily consumption of added sugars (which means eating significantly less processed foods), and labels that will now highlight the amounts of added sugar per serving

  • Clarification of daily limits of unhealthy fats (saturated fats)

  • Recommendations for daily amounts of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats

  • Recommendations for consumption of eggs, often maligned, because of its cholesterol levels

The Dietary Guidelines not only impact consumers, but serve as a standard for school lunches, food manufacturers, restaurants, stadiums, arenas and for any situation where healthier products are preferred. Whole grains will be emphasized over processed and refined grain products, and low fat and fat free dairy will still be recommended, though surveys show a shift to full (saturated) fat food items like butter and whole milk “in the name of health." To be clear, most of the health community still supports limits on consumption of saturated fat dairy foods to foster heart health, based on current research. Coffee is the most popular source of antioxidants here in the U.S. and will be endorsed as an acceptable beverage, as long as you don’t add sugar and creamer.

Reading current labels

Until the new guidelines are approved and released, here is a quick rundown for dissecting a food label:

Serving size – Make sure you understand how many serving sizes or single portions are in the bag, box or beverage. You may assume there is only one portion in the package when, in fact, there are two or more portions.

Number of calories in one portion size - Also note the number of calories in the whole package. If you are tracking calories, you need to have a running tabulation of calories consumed for each portion of food or drink. You also need to understand the calorie consequences if you decide to eat the whole package.

Fat breakdown - Make sure there are zero trans fats. Companies can still add tiny amounts of trans fats, so you also have to look at the list of ingredients to make sure that there are no mentions of “partially hydrogenated fats.” Check to see how many saturated fats per serving are listed. You will typically find saturated fats in animal products like meats and dairy items, and also in processed food items that taste good. A daily recommended goal is less than 10 percent of total calories in a day from saturated fat. You will have to do some math to convert grams of fat into calories to figure this out. One gram of fat is equivalent to nine calories. Do look for the presence of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, the good fats.

Cholesterol milligrams per serving - Aim for a total of 300 milligrams per day. If you eat an egg or a portion of shellfish, you will be close to that daily total.

Sodium - An easy guideline is 300 mgs or less per serving. Your goal is to aim for a maximum of 1500 milligrams of sodium or salt per day. If you eat processed foods and frozen foods daily, you will struggle to stay under this goal. Baked goods, deli meats and soups are also notoriously high in sodium. Too high salt levels can instigate hypertension and lead to heart disease.

Sugar - Until added sugars are clearly highlighted, you do need to look at both carbohydrates and sugar as delineated (separately) on the label. You also need to examine the ingredients list to see how many times sugar is mentioned. To do this properly, get to know all the names of sugar.

Currently, the panel determining the new Dietary Guidelines is accepting comments. The formal release of the guidelines is anticipated later this year.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at healthgal.com. Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”