How to read a nutrition label

 

A brief history of the nutrition label

The idea of a nutrition label is relatively new in regards to how long packaged food has been around. In 1990 The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was passed, this provides FDA with specific authority to require nutrition labeling of most foods. This also required that all nutrient content claims and health claims be consistent with agency regulations (read here). On May 27, 2016 the FDA made some updates to the traditional nutrition label that we are used to seeing in an effort to help consumers better understand what all is included in the product before purchase.You can read more about that here. It is also important to note that produce that is not pre-packaged is not required to have a nutrition label on it.

Navigating the nutrition label

To read a nutrition label you can start at the top of the label. This is where you will find out what a serving size of the product is, how many servings per container, and two different measurement types of that serving size(grams, ounces, cups, etc).  Knowing this can help determine personal serving sizes especially if your macros do not allow for a full portion of the product. This is also important because all of the percentages listed out for the calories, macros, cholesterol, sodium, vitamins, and minerals will be per serving.  Recently more products have started including nutritional information for the entire package adjacent to that of the serving size. After the serving size of a product you will see the calories per servings.Next is the total fat of a product with the different types of fat that are included in the product listed below. If a product includes trans fat it is required to list it and the amount that it contains.  Cholesterol and sodium are listed after total fat and these three should be monitored when not consuming whole foods and limited in consumption in general.Total carbohydrate is next and is broken down into sugar and fiber. With these new label guidelines companies are now going to be required to label the added sugar inside of a food product. Because of this you may also see total sugar listed more under total carbohydrates with a break down of the sugars included in a product. The way fiber is calculated is scheduled to be updated as well but it may not be as noticeable. Currently the definition of what should be included in dietary fiber is being reviewed so that what is listed for dietary fiber is only fiber that is beneficial to health. Another change to the label is Vitamin A and C which are no longer required and are now voluntary listings. This change is because in the early 1990s when nutritional labels were being established American diets lacked Vitamins A and C, but now Vitamins A and C deficiencies in the general population are rare. The minerals Calcium and Iron are still required to be listed on the food label. These along with fiber are required to be listed on the label in an effort to get Americans to get in enough of these nutrients. The last thing to be listed on the nutrition label is footnotes about daily values usually including variations of a 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diet.

What are macros?

Macronutrients known as macros are by definition a substance required in relatively large amounts by living organisms. In the human diet this refers to types of food (e.g., fat, protein, carbohydrate). Micronutrients are what we know as vitamins and minerals and are needed for the body to function properly, just in a much smaller amount then macros. Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats all play apart in the growth, development, and functionality of the body and none of them can be removed from consumption permanently or long term without side effects. To help better understand the role each of these play in the function of the body we will spend some time to briefly define them and what they do in the body.

Protein

Proteins, termed the building blocks of the body, are large molecules composed of amino acids. Proteins are responsible for many functions of the body some of these are; acting as enzymes, hormones and antibodies in the body along with building, maintaining, and repairing cells, tissues and organs of the body. The body needs twenty amino acids and can create eleven of these by itself. The nine that the body cannot create are what are called “essential amino acids” and must be acquired through food. These essential amino acids are: Tryptophan, Threonine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Valine, and Histidine. Meat and eggs contain all 9 essential amino acids but those following a plant based diet still have plenty of options to get all of their essential amino acids in. This can be most easily done through the pairing of legumes and grains like rice and beans or peanut butter and whole wheat bread.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be classified as any of a large group of organic compounds occurring in foods and living tissue including sugars, starch, and cellulose. They contain hydrogen and oxygen and can be broken down to release energy(glucose) in the Human body. Glucose is used as the primary source of energy for the brain, muscles and other parts of the body.

There are two types of Carbohydrates, Simple and Complex. Simple carbohydrates are sugars with a molecular construction of one or two parts. Simple carbs are digested in the body quickly and are a quick source of energy for the body. Complex carbohydrates are sugars with a molecular structure of three or more parts. The process to digest these carbohydrates takes longer and are usually more apt to satiate hunger than simple carbs. Complex carbohydrates also contain necessary vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Fats

Fats are organic compounds that are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and they are a source of energy for the body. Fats are essential to the diet just like protein and carbs as they help you absorb the micronutrients vitamins A, D, E, K otherwise known as the fat-soluble vitamins. The fats we get from food also give our body the essential fatty acids called linoleic and linolenic acid. Fats also play a vital role in body functions like blood clotting (vitamin K) and developing of the brain (vitamin D) just to name a few. Similar to essential amino acids these fats are essential because the body cannot produce them. The three main types of fats in relation to nutrition are Unsaturated fats, Saturated fats, and Trans fats. There are two types of fats most would consider good/healthy one is Monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. The other is Polyunsaturated fats found in sunflower oil, walnuts, flax seeds/flaxseed oil, and fish to name a few. Saturated fats while found mostly in animal products and byproducts can also be found from natural sources like coconut and coconut oil. Trans fat occur naturally in some meat and dairy products but most of the trans fats that the general population consumes are created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil (hydrogenation) making it take a more solid form. Trans fats should be avoided as much as possible as currently there is little research out here to list any positive health benefits from them unlike the other two fat types listed.

How to calculate macros?

To calculate macros you have to understand how to break them down. This is done by a simple equation of energy(calories) per gram. Protein and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram. Fat contains 9 calories per gram. So 10 grams of protein and carbs equals 40 calories, but 10 grams of fat equals 90 calories.

Example:

10(grams of carbs/protein) multiplied by 4(calories) = 40 calories

10(grams of fat) multiplied by 9(calories) = 90 calories

Being able to calculate macronutrients is essential when using a meal plan that breaks down your calories into macro percentages. For example, if you have person who consumes 1800 calories and has their macros broken into a 35/35/30 or 35% carbohydrates, 35% Protein, and 30% fat plan then the grams required of each macronutrient would be as follows:

1800 x .35(35%) = 630 calories   630/ 4 = 157.5g protein & carbohydrates

1800 x .30(30%) = 540 calories   540/ 9 = 60g fats

If you would like to skip doing the math on your own then you can use a macronutrient calculator like here.