Understanding nutrition labels
Most packaged foods in the market have a nutrition facts label and list of ingredients on them. Do you know how to read these labels? Nutrition information labels are information about packaged food products written by the manufacturer to consumers.
This information is compulsory for food manufacturers to provide on processed foods in many developed countries such as Canada and the United States of America. The reason for this policy is to inform consumers of the nutritional value of products and enable them to make healthier food choices.
A nutrition label could be divided into three main sections separated by thick lines. The information in the main or first two sections can vary with each food product; they contain information specific to a particular product such as the nutrient information, the serving size and calories.
The third section contains a footnote with the Daily Values (DVs) for 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets. The footnote provides recommended dietary information for important nutrients, including fats, sodium and fibre. The footnote is found only on products with larger packages and does not change from product to product.
The first place to start when looking at the nutrition facts label is the serving size and the number of servings in a package. They are located right under the heading, ‘Nutrition Fact’.
A serving is the amount of food recommended in consumer education materials or Nutrition Fact to be eaten by an individual at a given time. Serving sizes are standardised in similar foods to make it easier to compare.
They are quoted in familiar units such as pieces and cups. They are sometimes listed in metric amounts, such as the number of grams and millilitres that makes a serving.
This tells you how much energy is in the food per serving, as well as how much of the energy comes from fat. It is quoted in kilojoules (kJ) or kilocalories (kcal). You can calculate the total energy and energy from fat you are consuming by multiplying the number of calories by the number of servings you eat.
Ingredients are listed in order of the highest quantity in the product.
That is, the ingredient present in the largest amount is listed first.
People with food allergies should check all packaged foods for the ingredient list to see if it contains foods they are allergic to.
Examples of ingredients that result in allergic reactions include eggs, soy, pineapple, gluten, shell fishes among others. It is also important to check the ingredient list to see if it meets your social, cultural or religious requirement. Examples of these may include pork, snails, beef and many more.
The daily value is a standard guide for people who eat 2,000 calories each day. Your daily value may be lower or higher than 2,000 calories.
The Per cent Daily Value (% DV) is calculated to determine if a serving of food is high or low in a particular nutrient with reference to a person with a daily energy requirement of 2,000 calories.
Choose foods with the lowest %DV (5% or less) for trans fat, saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium and sugar. Too much of these may increase the risk of developing many chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
Nutrition claims are quick ways to highlight specific nutrients or ingredients of interest to the consumer. These usually appear on the front of food packages. This is designed to attract and enable consumers to make quick decisions about products without necessarily reading the label.
Front of Package (FOP) labelling system uses colour coding of traffic lights to warn consumers about the quantity of nutrients (that must be taken in moderation) in foods.
Nutrients of concern include total fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, sugars and salt. A product high in the above-mentioned nutrients is indicated in red, yellow if moderate and green if its content is low. Consumers are, however, advised to use the percentage to help quickly distinguish a claim as true or not.
Always remember to check the quantity of the product that makes a serving and the caloric content to avoid over/under consumption.
Check the ingredient list for allergies peculiar to you as well. Moreover, look out for foods with low percentage DV in trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and sugar.
Foods with high percentage DV values in fibre, vitamins, calcium and iron are highly recommended. Buy packaged products with nutrition fact labels in languages you can read and understand.
The writers are Effah Achiaa Pamela, Mrs Freda Dzifa Intiful and Portia Dzivenu
(Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Ghana, Korle-Bu Campus)