September 29, 2023
Americans eat 31 percent more processed food than fresh food. While they may have a bad rep, not all processed foods are bad for you! The key is knowing what’s in the things you eat and drink so you can make healthy, informed choices. The best way to do that is to understand how to read the nutrition labels on the foods and beverages you buy at the grocery store.
Some terms have specific meanings and must meet Food and Drug Administration standards.
Foods with “low-fat,” “low-calorie,” or “low-carb” labels can’t contain more than a specified amount of fat, calories, or carbohydrates per serving.
Plants or plant-based foods labelled “organic” must have been produced without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, biotechnology, or ionizing radiation. For foods made from animals to have an “organic” label, the animals must have been fed organic feed and not injected with hormones or antibiotics.
Foods labeled “light” have been processed to reduce their calories or fat. These foods may have had some ingredients added to them to make up for their reduced calorie and/or fat content, so you should read their nutrition labels before buying them.
The FDA requires manufacturers of baby formula to put a “Use by” date on their packages. No other food producer is required by the federal government to put dates on their products, but many do. These dates include:
• “Sell by” dates, which tell stores how long to display products for inventory management purposes
• “Best if used by/before” dates, which indicate when products will be of the best flavor or quality
• “Use by” dates, which are similar. They’re the last dates on which you can use products and still have them be at peak quality
• “Freeze by” dates, which tell you how long you have to freeze products to keep them at peak quality
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 required packaged food manufacturers to put “Nutrition Facts” labels on their products’ containers. The FDA updated its requirements for the labels in 2016 but gave some manufacturers until July 1, 2021, to begin using labels that met the requirements.
“Nutrition Facts” labels contain the following information:
• The number of servings of food in the package
• The size of each serving
• The number of calories in a serving
• The amount of nutrients a serving contains
The FDA says the serving size on nutrition labels “reflects the amount that people typically eat or drink” and “is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.” It may not, however, be the amount you typically eat or drink. That’s why, if you’re counting calories or tracking your intake of such nutrients as sodium, you should pay attention to your serving sizes when you’re eating packaged foods.
Nutrition labels list the nutrients in a serving two ways:
The top nutrients listed are:
• Total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat
• Total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars
The amount of added sugars in a food or beverage is specifically noted so consumers know the difference between sugar that occurs naturally and sugar that was added during processing. Added sugars should make up less than 10 percent of your total calories per day, according to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The other nutrients listed are ones that Americans typically don’t consume enough of. They include:
• Vitamin D
The labels don’t have “% Daily Value” listings for trans fats or sugars because there is no minimum amount of trans fat or sugar that you should consume each day. They only have “% Daily Value” listings for proteins on products that claim to be high in protein or are for children four years old and younger. That’s because protein intake isn’t a health concern for Americans over four.
Generally, if a serving of a food contains 20% or more of the recommended daily value of a nutrient, the food is considered to have a high amount of that nutrient. If a serving contains 5% or less of the recommended daily value of a nutrient, the food is considered to have a low amount of that nutrient.
The FDA recommends trying to choose foods that are high in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium and/or low in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars.
As a general rule, fresh foods are usually better for you than processed foods. But you can still make packaged foods a healthy part of your diet if you know how to read their labels and follow the recommended nutritional guidelines.