A Cheat Sheet to Food Nutrition Labels

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The Nutrition Facts label you see on nearly all food at the store may soon get a makeover. The FDA recently announced plans to update the label, which turned 20 this year.

But superficial changes won’t help the shopper who doesn’t understand that not all calories are created equally. In other words, food labels are most helpful to us (and our new year’s resolutions) when we read them to understand not just how much nutrition but what kind of nutrition is in a food.

So we’ve created this cheat sheet to help you understand the quantity and quality of the calories you eat – no matter what the Nutrition Facts label happens to look like.

What to focus on

Fiber

  • Quality: There are two types of fiber (soluble and insoluble) – but don’t worry about that. Plant-based fiber sources generally contain both types, so instead worry about eating a variety of fiber-filled foods like whole grains and whole foods (produce, beans, nuts, and seeds).
  • Quantity: The nonprofit Institute of Medicine recommends 21 to 26 total grams a day for women and 30 to 38 for men.
  • Bottom line: Fill up on fiber by filling your shopping cart with whole grains and whole foods.

What to limit

Fat

  • Quality: Understanding fats can be overwhelming, but my father – a cardiologist – taught me there are three basic types: good, bad, and ugly. Plant-based and fish-based fat sources are good and should be where you get most of your fat from. Animal-based fats are bad and should be limited. Man-made trans fats (a.k.a. partially hydrogenated oils) are ugly and should be avoided completely.
  • Quantity: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend getting 20 to 35 percent of your calories from fat. That means that on average, the number of “Calories from Fat” on a food label divided by the number of “Calories” should equal 0.2 to 0.35. That only applies to good and bad fats, however. To avoid ugly fats, check out Trans Fats: When Cheap Means Costly.
  • Bottom line: Go for the good, limit the bad, and utterly avoid the ugly.

Sodium

  • Quality: Sodium is sodium, so focus on quantity. Like fat and cholesterol, our bodies need sodium to function properly, but most Americans consume too much, which can lead to costly health problems.
  • Quantity: The CDC recommends 2,300 milligrams a day maximum.
  • Bottom line: Monitor milligrams.

Sugar

  • Quality: There are two basic types of sugar: natural and added. Natural sugar is built into foods by Mother Nature (oranges, for example, contain natural sugar). Added sugar is added by the manufacturer (orange soda, for example, contains added sugar). To tell whether a food contains added sugar, read the ingredients: It will be listed as sugar, cane sugar, honey, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, or fructose, for example. To learn more, check out 10 Shockingly Sugary ‘Health’ Cereals and 18 Drinks With More Sugar Than Coke.
  • Quantity: You have to understand the distinction between natural and added sugar so you can watch out for added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends about 30 grams (that’s about 6 teaspoons) a day maximum for women and 45 grams (about 9 teaspoons) for men.
  • Bottom line: Avoid added sugar by scrutinizing ingredient lists.

Protein

  • Quality: Protein comes from a wide variety of sources, both animal- and plant-based. To help you limit bad fat and load up on fiber, focus on lean meats (like poultry and fish instead of red meat) and plant-based protein sources like beans, nuts, and seeds.
  • Quantity: Most Americans eat more protein than they need, which is more reason to focus on the types of protein you eat instead of the quantity. (Although the CDC recommends 46 grams for women and 56 for men.)
  • Bottom line: You probably already eat enough quantity, so remember it’s all about quality.

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