How to read food labels

Question: How can the information on a food label improve one's eating habits? Nutrition Facts panel is not required by law in Jamaica. But it came about by nutrition advocacy so that people can know what it is that they’re eating.  Many diseases are linked to food and it empowers people to make better choices for themselves.
  • Tells the number of servings in the container and the amount and calories per serving as well as nutrients (usually based on a 2000 or 2500 kcal diet).
  • Tells amount of sugar, saturated and trans fats per serving as well as other nutrients – or lack there of
What do Daily Values, Ingredient List and Nutrition Facts Panel have to do with reading the food labels?
  • The daily values (DV) are different from recommended intakes expressed as recommended dietary allowances (RDA) which the nutrition professional will determine for you. They were created to reflect a standard by which almost all healthy persons could compare their daily nutrient intakes and therefore could track their intake of calories and nutrients.
  • That is, you are able to see how much of the particular calories and nutrients are being consumed from the particular product relative to other products and to the RDA determined for you by the nutritionist.
  • Particularly helpful for persons who must monitor things like salt / sodium, monitoring sugar, total fat intake (type of fat) and calories.
Ingredient list tells you:
  • what’s actually in the food, starting from the greatest to the least amount by weight. Therefore, if sugar is listed first, that is the ingredient with the most amount in the food.
  • You can see if there is food you’re allergic to e.g. contains peanuts, milk.
  • You sometimes see “no trans fats” but in the ingredients its actually listed e.g. hydrogenated materials (has to be over a certain amount for it to be declared).
  • See if the food is highly processed – lots of names you cannot pronounce; see what they use to sweeten it e.g. high fructose corn syrup or other sugar substitutes
What is saturated, unsaturated and trans fats? Do they equal total fats on nutrition labels?
  • Saturated fat and trans fats (particularly from animal sources) are significant because they are found to increase your blood cholesterol levels and you have a greater risk for getting heart and other chronic disease.
  • Saturated fat from plant sources, like coconut oil, or oils from olives or omega oils from fish were not found to increase cholesterol or inflammation.
  • Unsaturated fats tend to be more from plant sources, which do not increase cholesterol levels but too much can cause inflammation in the body.
  • They are all summed up in total fats on the nutrition panel
What does a gram of sugar mean on a nutrition label?
  • This tells you how many grams of sugar are in a serving of the particular food.
    • 1 gram of sugar gives you 4 kcals of energy i.e. a food with 15g sugar will give you 60 calories which is the equivalent of 1 tbsp. The maximum amount of sugar recommended daily by the WHO equates to 1½ tbsp sugar i.e. not more than 25g of added sugar per day – includes sugar found in processed juices.
How does one determine the correct serving sizes upon reading food labels?
  • This is dependent on how many calories you should be having in a day. This is very individualistic and is determined by your nutritionist.  So, if the calories in 1 serving says 100 Calories and you wish to have 200 calories from that product, then 2 servings should work for you.  However, if your plan can accommodate only 50 calories from that product, they you should be having ½ a serving.
by Celia Innerarity

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