Get Savvy About Food: Use Nutrition Labels And This Cheat Sheet

Advertising Disclosure: When you buy something by clicking links on our site, we may earn a small commission, but it never affects the products or services we recommend.

Image Not Available

Before the year is out, nutrition labels on nearly all the food you encounter, whether in a grocery store, a bowling alley, vending machine, pizza parlor or movie theater, will have far more explicit information for consumers. The makeover, called for by the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, is the product of nearly four years of haggling among politicians, health experts and food industry leaders. The new rules mandate, among other changes, prominent display of calories, disclosure of added sugar, and more realistic definition of the quantity considered a portion, in part to help address an epidemic of obesity in the United States. The FDA says:

About half of consumers’ annual food dollars are spent on, and a third of total calories come from, foods prepared outside the home, including foods from restaurants and similar retail food establishments. Many people do not know, or underestimate, the calorie and nutrient content of these foods. To help make nutrition information for these foods available to consumers in a direct, accessible and consistent manner to enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.

In other words, they hope better information will lead to better informed and healthier consumers.

The new Nutrition Facts should make it easier to decipher what is in processed food. Even with the label as it is now, however, you can get started making better choices in both the quality and quantity of food you buy by following these tips:

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 such as 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.

Fats — good, bad and ugly

  • 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. Animal-based fats are bad and should be limited. Man-made trans fats (aka partially hydrogenated oils) are ugly and should be avoided completely.
  • Quantity: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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.

Salt: consume less

  • 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 a maximum of 2,300 milligrams a day.
  • Bottom line: Monitor milligrams.

Sugars are not all equal

  • 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 — pay attention to quality

  • 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 (such as poultry and fish instead of red meat) and plant-based protein sources such as 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. (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.

Get smarter with your money!

Want the best money-news and tips to help you make more and spend less? Then sign up for the free Money Talks Newsletter to receive daily updates of personal finance news and advice, delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our free newsletter today.