Useful Label Reading Strategies

 

The new food label, designed by the FDA, will show the amount of added sugars on foods. The deadline is being extended from May 2017 to May 2018 by the FDA. But we do not need to wait for the new label to make better shopping decisions. In the mean time there are still plenty of ways for consumers to practice reading a label. Here are some of our best tips!

Sometimes Serving Sizes Need to Be Adjusted
Jacqueline Marcus, MS, RD, LD, FADA, Nutrition Consultant in Northfield, Illinois, uses this table for helping clients determine serving sizes when clients don’t fit the “2,000 calorie mold.”

Though the 1990 Nutrition Education and Labeling Act introduced Daily Reference Values (DRV) for some nutrients and prescribed standard serving sizes for most foods, unless you consume 2,000 or 2,500 calories daily, or exact serving sizes, labels can be confusing and in some cases, misleading. Here are examples of people who might not follow the 2000 calorie per day guide and how they should adjust portion sizes:

Sex Age Activity Level Calories Per Day Reduce Serving By: Increase Serving By:
Women 19-50 years Low 1800 20%
Women 51 and older Low 1700 25%
Men 19-50 High 3000 30%

Cracker Comparisons Teach Importance of Label Reading

Serving sizes should be expressed in common household measures and based on average sizes, familiar to consumers and appropriate for products. Yet current serving sizes on packages are often hard to visualize. Comparing products can be difficult because many serving sizes are by weight instead of volume.

Serving sizes on crackers are one example of how serving sizes can be confusing because some labels state one ounce. Since crackers are different sizes, numbers of crackers per serving vary with each brand. For example, here is how many it takes for one serving of various crackers and not all crackers are equal in the weight. It is interesting to note that the higher-fiber crackers, listed at the bottom, show a smaller serving size and calories:

Product Weight per serving Number of Pieces Calories
Wheat Thins 31g 8 140
Wheat Thins Reduced Fat 29g 16 130
Triscuit 28g 6 120
Reduced Fat Triscuit 28g 6 110
Snackwell Cheddar Snack Crackers 28g 32 120
Ritz Crackers 16g 5 80
 Saltines Crackers 16g  5 70
 Water Table Cracker  14g 4 60
 Wasa Crispbread  18 g 2  60
GG Scandinavian Crisps 8g 1 20

Cold cereals are measured differently so it is important to be aware of how much you serve:

Cereal Weight of Serving Serving Size Calories
Cheerios 21g 1 cup 100
Multi Grain Cheerios 29g 1 cup 110
Raisin Bran 59g 1 cup 190
General Mills Chex 47g 3/4 cup 160

Serving sizes for some packaged foods are as packaged e.g. instant mashed potatoes are given a serving size of ¼ cup while the actual serving when made according to package directions would be ¾ cup. Here is where clients need to pay attention to Servings Per Container.

When it comes to refined carbohydrates that are easy to overeat, such as crackers, chips, refined cereals, pasta and white rice, Jacqueline tells her weight-loss clients to have about half the serving size that appears on the nutrition label.

People don’t often realize that they need to adjust all the nutrients if they eat more or less than a serving. Many times, it is easier for them to look at the Servings Per Container line to get an idea of how much is in a serving.

Healthful Foods Don’t Bear Labels
Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, Coordinator, Food & Nutrition Resource Network, University of Missouri Extension, says her favorite resources for the food label come from the FDA and that they have a great food label resource page. She tries to help clients understand labels by looking at total fat and calories; she reminds them that healthful whole grains, fruits and vegetables don’t bear labels.

% Daily Value Strategies
Julie Dostal, RD, Nutrition Consultant, Foodstuff, counsels individuals and does worksite wellness. She says the most important thing she tries to get across to clients is to determine which foods are low in fat by seeing if they have 3 grams of fat per 100 calories. An example she gives is that if a food has 350 calories, then it should have 10 grams of total fat or less. The good news is that if a food has 10% or more of a nutrient then it is a good source of that nutrient such as vitamin A, vitamin C, iron or calcium. If it has 20% or more of a nutrient, then it is an excellent source of that nutrient. She also reminds them that this goes for saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium!

Pie Slices Show % Daily Value
Sharon Hoelshcher Day, CFCS, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Agent, created a great system for teaching her EFNEP population. She made pie shaped wedges to represent different percentages of a pie. These are laminated and have velcro on the back. They stick them to a felt-covered foam core board. In a basket, they have all different food labels with favorite foods and these are used to create a meal. After the meal is created, they use pie wedges to show how the fat and salt add up very quickly for an entire day with just one meal.

Balance Positive with Negative
Connie McClellan, RD, LD, Clinical Dietitian, has a key message: make sure that a food has at least 10% Daily Value of one of the following: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Iron or Calcium. And that it has no more than 10% Daily Value of: fat, cholesterol or sodium. This helps people to find nutritious foods and balance the positive with the negative.

Looking High and Low
Jean Storlie, MS, RD, President/Owner, JS Associates, Inc. and Nutrition Labeling Solutions, Ithaca, NY, says to look high and low. By this she means divide the nutrient list into the nutrients to look for high numbers and the nutrients to look for low numbers. Look for high numbers: carbohydrate, fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. Look for low numbers: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars. All the values are relative to the type of food so this tool is most relevant when comparing similar foods.

Diabetes Tip
Jinny Gerstle, RD, EdM always teaches her diabetic patients that a serving of starch is 15 grams of carbohydrate. She shows them where to look for this information on the food label and instructs them how to work this food item into their diet by how many starches it represents.

PMS Stands For Types of Fat
Margie Bryan, RD, Nutrition Coordinator, St. Francis Regional Heart Center, Beechgrove, Indiana, uses this acronym to teach cardiac patients about types of fat. The most important thing about the food label for lowering cholesterol is the amount of total fat and its source, not the “no cholesterol” claim on the package. One example she uses is a package of Jiffy Cornbread, which only has 4 grams of total fat, but a look at the ingredients shows it contains animal fat.

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