Many consumers are aware of a nutrition label, but reading it correctly is important to understand your actual intake. An accurate read requires an understanding of the difference between a serving and a portion. A serving of food is the official amount that is listed on the label, while a portion is the amount that you actually eat.
Nutrition Facts Label Step 1: Portion Size
Many people assume, often incorrectly, that small packages of cookies, crackers or chips, or moderately sized beverage containers are single servings.
But that isn’t always the case.
The current official serving size of a beverage is about 250mL. Many drinks come in larger cans and bottles, which might contain two or more servings. If you guzzle a 500 ml bottle of sweetened iced tea, you’ll need to double all the information on the nutrition facts panel (i.e. calories and the sugar content).
Similarly, a serving of potato chips is 30g, which is only about 15 chips. If you’re eating out of a large bag, you may eat several servings. You’ll need to count the amount of chips or measure your servings to determine your total consumption.
Nutrition Facts Label Step 2: Nutrients, Cholesterol and Fibre
You can also find amounts for protein, fat and carbohydrate, sugar, fibre, cholesterol, and sodium content provided on a per-serving basis. To understand your nutrient intake, you need to know or closely approximate your serving intake.
The total carbohydrate listed includes all forms of carbohydrate – starch, sugar and fibre.
The listing for sugar includes both added sugars, as well as naturally occurring sugars (such as in fruit). Due to this, it’s not always easy to tell where the sugar is coming from without looking at the ingredients list.
Fats can be divided up into two broad categories: saturated (unhealthy fats) and unsaturated (beneficial fats). Of the two, the unsaturated fats are considered better for you, since these fats are derived primarily from plant foods and can help to keep blood cholesterol levels within a normal range.
Nutrition Facts Label Step 3: % Daily Intake
You may see a column with “% Daily Intake, or %DI.” These are standard recommended levels of intake for various nutrients, established by the Food Standards Code ANZ for use on food labels. The information in this column tells you what percentage of the recommended intake for each nutrient is found in a serving of food. These values are based on an 8700 kJ (or 2,080 calorie) diet per day, which means they may not apply to everyone. If this calorie intake does not apply to you, you can still use the % DI to see if a particular food is high or low in a nutrient.
Nutrition Facts Labels – Comparing Similar Foods Can Be Tricky
Reading a label is fairly straightforward, but it all comes back to the serving sizes. We suggest examining your serving sizes closely, especially if you’re comparing the nutrition facts among similar foods.
Certain similar foods may have different weight and density, such as cereals, like puffed cereal versus muesli. Each brand or “type” may have portion sizes and weights measured differently. For example, muesli is much more dense and has nearly 13 times more calories than puffed wheat, meaning that the two cereals will have different serving sizes. Since most of us pour ourselves “a bowl” of cereal, what really matters is how big your portion is. If you always pour the same volume of cereal into your bowl – whether it’s muesli or puffed wheat – check your portion size.
Nutrition Facts Labels Bottom Line: Know Your Portions and Compare to Servings
The bottom line is this: the nutrition facts label can help you make better consumption choices – as long as you are able to compare the amounts of food you are actually eating to the serving sizes that are listed on the package.
Weigh and measure your foods with a scale and measuring cups for a while until you get good at “eyeballing” your own portions. Keeping track of your calories won’t do you much good if you don’t know how much you’re really eating.