INTERVIEWEE - Marwa Hassan(MSc) - Clinical Dietitian
American Wellness Centre, Dubai Healthcare City

Reading food labels: How to determine which product is healthier?

The nutrition label is an important source of information to distinguish healthy food from those that are less healthy or even outright unhealthy. Understanding it will help you choose the right product for you and your family.

What is a Nutrition Label?

It is information printed on food packages showing the product contents such as calories, fats, protein, carbohydrates, sodium, sugar, some vitamins, and minerals. This information helps you determine the amount of nutrients in a specific portion size consumed. The Nutrition label can help you make choices about the food you eat if you are trying to stay healthy, lose weight, restrict your intake of fat, sugar or sodium, or if you are trying to increase your fiber intake.

Content of nutrition labels:

1.  Portion sizes:

The first thing you need to look at is the serving size or portion size, which is usually at the top of the nutrition label (example 2/3 cup or 55 grams). The nutrient values listed on the label are based on this serving size. If the serving size is one cup and you ate two cups, then your intake is double the amount of calories, protein, fats and other nutrients listed on the label.

Servings per container are also printed at the top. It specifies in total how many servings the whole package contains (8 servings per container). Some containers have a single serving per package, but others have more than one serving per container.

2.  Calories:

Try to figure out how many calories there are per serving. If you are trying to lose weight, it would be a good idea to cut down on your caloric intake. Portion control is an important part of weight management.

Example: One serving of the product contains 230 calories.

3.  The daily value

The daily value of each item is listed in percentage based on a 2000 calories diet per day. This does not mean that each individual needs a 2000 Calorie diet. The calorie requirements differ from one person to the other.

Percent Daily Value (% DV) is the amount in one portion of the food product and it helps you determine if a particular nutrient is high or low.

%DV> 20% ->this nutrient is high in this specific product

%DV< 5% -> the nutrient is low in this particular product.

Example 1: If DV on the package is 10% for fat, then it is within the recommended range, but if DV is 30%, this is considered high for fat.

Example 2: If %DV of sodium is less than 5%, then the product is low in sodium and is okay to consume. If the %DV of sodium is greater than 5%, you need to cut down on your salt intake during the day.

Get less of fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. Aim high for dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin D, calcium, and iron.

4.  Ingredients:

The ingredients are listed below the nutrition label, from highest to lowest. Those in the largest amounts are listed first. When sugar is listed in the first three ingredients, avoid the product as it is high in sugar. Try to avoid products that contain shortening, hydrogenated oils, and syrups. If the list is long and if it contains a long list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce, put back the product on the shelf.

Do not be fooled by the health claims on the food label:

  • “No added sugar”: does not mean that the product is sugar free. It means that sugar was not added during the packaging process. Check the nutrition label to see the total grams of sugar in the product.
  • “Sugar free”: does not mean no carbohydrates. Sugar is typically listed under the carbohydrate heading, but the product could still contain carbohydrates even if not in the form of sugars.
  • “Light”: could be light in any of calories, fat, or sodium and not necessarily all three. Double check the nutrition label to determine the calorie, fat and salt content.
  • “Reduced” or “Less”: ”: means the food has 25% less of a specific nutrient than the regular product.
  • “Low Calorie”: means 40 Calories or less per serving.
  • “Calorie free”: means less than five calories per serving.
  • “Natural”: means that the manufacturer started with a natural source, but during processing, the food may not be natural anymore. Look for "100% All Natural" and "No Preservatives."
  • “Fruit drink”: this means there's little or no real fruit and a lot of sugar. Instead look for products that say "100% Fruit Juice." What’s better is to avoid juice anyway and eat whole fruits instead.

You do not need to check every nutrient on the food label. Use the nutrition label to mainly compare products and to monitor your intake of fats, sugar and sodium. If you are choosing between two different products, always choose the product with the lower sugar content, lower sodium content and higher fiber content.

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