Nutritional facts labels on foods are a roadmap to health. “Without them, we’d be flying blind in terms of knowing whether a processed food contains healthy levels of calories, sodium, fat, and nutrients,” says registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Read It Before You Eat It.
While 60 percent of people read nutrition facts labels, most of them focus only on calories, says Taub-Dix. If you just look at calories or sugar levels, you might pass on healthy foods like low-fat milk and yogurt. “Milk contains good amounts of both, but it also has nine essential nutrients and minerals needed for health,” says Taub-Dix. That’s one reason to look at all the nutrition facts before giving a food the thumbs down.
But some key information doesn’t make it on to Nutrition Facts labels—or it’s not easily found. Here are four things you won’t find on food labels, and tips for making better choices at the market.
Zero isn’t zero. The government allows food manufacturers to claim a food has 0 grams of trans fat even if the product contains .5 grams or less of this dangerous, artery-clogging fat. “A cookie could be very small, but if it contains trans fat and you eat 10 of them, you could be getting way more of the fat than you bargained for,” says Taub-Dix. Tip: You can tell if a food really has trans fat by looking for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list.
One package does not equal one serving. Many people think that the numbers on the nutrition facts label apply to the whole package, says Taub-Dix. Wrong. They apply to only one serving of the food. While—technically—the serving size information is on the label, it’s easy to miss. Since most of us eat more than one serving of our favorite foods, make sure you check the serving size before you buy—you may have to double or even triple the fat, cholesterol, sugar and nutrient levels on the package to reflect the larger portion.
What “low” and “high” mean. “Percentage of daily value,” located at the right of the nutrition facts label, gives you a quick snapshot of the food’s nutritional value. It shows the percentage of the recommended daily intake of each nutrient that is contained in one serving. But how do you know whether a particular food is a good source of a nutrient—or not? Taub-Dix suggests this rule-of-thumb: If a nutrient is five percent of the daily value, it is considered low; 20 percent or more is high.
Whether “natural” is better for you. “Feel-good words like ‘all natural’ or ‘made with natural ingredients’ on the front of the package tell you absolutely nothing about the nutritional content of the food,” says Taub-Dix. Only the nutrition facts label tells you that.