Understanding nutritional labels

lifestyle August 09, 2017 13:04

By The Nation

Reading nutrition labels can be a challenge, not least because the numbers, percentages and terms seems like double-dutch to anyone but a qualified professional.

Yet understanding a nutrition label could allow us to make quick, informed choices, improve your diet and give us a longer, healthier life.

Susan Bowerman, director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife, a registered dietician and a specialist in sports dietetics explains the information found in food packages and says that getting familiar with the serving size is the first step in decoding the nutrition facts label. 

“The nutrition food label can provide you with lots of useful information, provided you know how to read it correctly,” she explains, and provides three steps to make ensure you have the right nutritional information on what you are about to eat.

>> Portion Size

Many people assume, often incorrectly, that small packs 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 soft drink is about 250ml. But many drinks come in much larger cans and bottles, and they might contain two or more servings. So, if you drink a bottle of green tea, you’ll be drinking two servings. And that means you’ll need to double all the information on the nutrition facts panel (like the calories and the sugar content, for instance) to figure out how much you’ve taken in.

Similarly, for labelling purposes, a serving of potato chips is 30 grams, which is only about 15 chips. But if you’re eating out of a large bag, chances are you’re eating several servings. So, be mindful that you could easily finish a whole bag without realising that it actually contains multiple servings!

>> Nutrients, cholesterol and fibre

Labelling for protein, fat and carbohydrate content is also provided on a per-serving basis. Same goes for sugar, fibre, cholesterol and sodium. As with the example above, you need to know how many servings you’re consuming so you can estimate your intake of these nutrients accurately.

Keep in mind that the total carbohydrate that’s listed includes all forms of carbohydrate – starch, sugar and fibre. Below that number you’ll find separate listings for fibre and sugar. The listing for sugar lumps together both added sugars as well as naturally occurring sugars (like the natural sugar in milk or fruit). So, it’s not always easy to tell where the sugar is coming from without looking at the actual ingredients list.

There is a move in the US to change the Nutrition Facts label to make reading easier. Starting July 26, 2018, all labels should include a separate line for “added sugars” to distinguish them from the naturally occurring ones. Hopefully, Thailand will soon adopt this measure as well.

% Daily Value

The other thing you’ll see on the label is a column with “% Daily Value.” Daily Values are standard recommended levels of intake for various nutrients that are established by the Thai Food and Drug Administration for use on food labels. The information in this column tells you what percentage of the intake for each nutrient is found in one serving, compared with the daily recommended level. Keep in mind that these values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which means they may not apply to everyone. But even if a 2,000 calorie diet doesn’t apply to you, you can easily use the % Daily Value to calculate the nutrients that you will get from eating a particular food.

“Nutrition Facts labels can really help to guide you to make better 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,” says Bowerman.