Decoding the Nutrition Facts Panel

Every packaged food has got one of these as mandated by the FDA, but with all the technical words, amounts, and percentages, you practically need a degree in nutrition to be able to decode what all the info actually means. On the contrary! Nourish Snacks’ founder and nutritionist, Joy Bauer, is here to help with her advice on what to look for on the nutrition label.

Serving size
This is the first piece of information on a food label, and one of the most important because this is the amount of food that all the subsequent nutrition info is based on.
It’s a common mistake to assume a container is one serving, but don’t be fooled! Make sure to munch mindfully—a package can often house three or more servings…and it’s easy to gobble down triple the amount of calories, fat, sugar and sodium as what’s listed on the nutrition facts panel.

Ingredients list
Next stop: Move down to the ingredients list (found below the panel) and take a look. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so the first one is the most predominant, then the second, and so on. My advice? Look for foods that contain unprocessed, recognizable ingredients and try choosing items that have whole foods listed closer to the top.
*Note: Don’t get confused by parentheses (these are sub-ingredients).

Saturated fat/Trans fat
These numbers are more important than total fat, as these two seem to be the most detrimental to our health. There is some debate over saturated fat (and especially when it comes from dark chocolate and coconut), but in general, I recommend limiting overall intake until we know more. And we know for sure that trans fat is dangerous, so avoiding this entirely is a smart bet.

Protein
The amount to aim for really depends on the type of food. For example, a single serve Greek yogurt has about 16 grams (naturally, from the dairy), while a tub of guac has 0g, since there’s no protein in avocados and the flavorings. Both are healthy foods — but one is significantly higher in protein.  

Sodium
The recommended daily limit is no more than 2,300 mg—and ideally, 1,500 mg. It’s really easy to bypass this mark when you’re eating packaged or processed foods (which is where 75 percent of our sodium intake comes from—not the salt shaker). There’s a startlingly high amount of sodium in surprising places, like salad dressing, breads and packaged snacks. It’s good to be aware of your sodium intake, even if you don’t have high blood pressure.

My recommended sodium limits:
<200 mg for snacks, sides and cereals
<800 for dinner entrées

Sugar
Labels will soon break out added sugar from total sugars (Nourish Snacks is already doing this!), but in the meantime, you have to do a little detective work. First, look at Total Sugars to see just how much is in a product (Total Sugar represents a combination of naturally occurring sugar from fruit, veggies and dairy, as well as added sugar). Then, look at the ingredients list for different forms of added sugars (cane sugar, coconut sugar, maple sugar, honey, agave, rice syrup, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, etc.) and anything with the –ose suffix [like dextrose or fructose]. The more of these terms and the higher they are up on the list, the more added sugars the product contains. As a guide, leading health organizations have advised no more than 10% of your daily calories come from “added” sugars…which translates to no more than 50 grams on a 2000 calorie diet.

When it comes to sugar, here’s my personal recommendation:
Cereal: no more than 8 grams Total Sugar/serving
Flavored yogurt: no more than 16 grams Total Sugar/serving
Packaged snack food:  <8 grams Total Sugar/serving

Keep in mind, milk, plain yogurt, fruits and veggies provide naturally occurring sugars, which also contribute to the Total Sugar amount, however are obviously much more desirable than added sugar.

Fiber
Fiber helps you stay full and improves digestion, but unfortunately, we don’t get nearly enough of it. Women need 25 g per day; men need 38 g per day—the average American consumes only about 16 grams. Compare products (bread, cereal, etc.) and choose those that are higher in fiber whenever possible.