Does Anyone Read Nutritional Labels Anymore? (Or Understand Them?)
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Expert calls for nutritional guidance reform and creates scoring system for consumers
In theory, a “Nutritional Facts” label should effectively communicate nutritional value to consumers. Unfortunately though, food products’ labels often mislead and confuse shoppers, sharing statistics that, most of the time, go over people’s heads. While the onus is often put on the consumer to figure out what’s healthy, according to NuVal inventor David Katz: this shouldn’t be the case.
Developed by Katz, along with a team of nutritional and medical experts, NuVal is a scoring system designed to guide consumers through the nutritional maze that has become the modern supermarket. Foods are rated on a scale of 1-100: the higher the number, the better the nutrition.
How does it work, though? The long answer involves a complex algorithm called the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, briefly explained on the program’s website, or more fully explained in this 56-page reference manual.
But according to Katz, understanding NuVal’s nutritional algorithm shouldn’t be the average consumer’s problem — just like figuring out what foods are (actually) good for you shouldn’t be the average consumer’s problem.
“We rely on private-sector innovation for a lot of important jobs, and even many that put our safety on the line,” Katz says. “The private sector makes our cars and planes. We seem to be comfortable using these without scrutinizing patent applications.”
Over 100,000 NuVal scores are on display in 1,700 supermarkets across the nation. If the program expands even further, it might just become the way to thwart advertising schemes.
Keebler Townhouse Bistro Multi Grain Crackers sound pretty healthy. “multi-grain” is good for you, right? According to NuVal, they earn a 3.
Food Fraud Is Real. Here's How To Detect Mislabeled Foods.
More than half of Americans find food labels misleading or confusing, and sometimes for good reason. Even when we carefully check labels for nutrition, fat, sugar, sodium, total calories or specialty claims like organic and gluten-free, what we see may not always be what we get.
Mislabeling, also called misbranding, is all too common. At times, false labels are due to outright food fraud — such as the nearly one-third of fish that is mislabeled every year, according to research by nonprofit foundation Oceana. (Often times, inexpensive types of fish are labeled as more expensive fish, tricking consumers into spending far more money.) In other cases, the labels are due to manufacturer error — such as putting a gluten-free claim on a product containing barley. And finally, labels can sometimes be outright confusing, since the way the FDA defines a serving size or a sugar may not be the way we intuitively understand it.
Confusion is about to increase, now that the “nutrition facts” part of food labels is changing for the first time since 1994. Large manufacturers (with more than $10 million in annual sales) rolled out their new labels this past January smaller manufacturers will comply by January 2021. Serving sizes are now larger to reflect the fact we eat larger portions than we once did the daily recommended limit for sodium drops from 2,400 to 2,300 milligrams, and vitamin D and potassium levels must be included, among other changes.
The good news is that “consumers can protect themselves,” according to Rosalee Hellberg, a food scientist at Chapman University in California. “They can teach themselves to read labels properly, and learn how to protect themselves from food fraud. There are simple pointers that anyone can learn.”
Here are some common examples of mislabeling and guidelines for ensuring the foods you buy are what you think they are.
Both honey and olive oil have been adulterated and then falsely labeled. Honey has been diluted with corn syrup or sugar, while olive oil can be mixed with cheaper oils and, in some cases, food coloring is added to give the green hue of oils rich in phytonutrients.
Fruit juices are sometimes fakes, as well, watered down or diluted with cheap apple or grape juice. Orange juice might actually contain lemon or grapefruit juice as well as high fructose corn syrup or other sugars.
You can protect yourself from counterfeits, Hellberg told HuffPost, by “becoming familiar with your favorite foods and beverages. Know the typical prices for those products, and what the label looks like.” If the taste changes, or the label looks a bit different, she said that should alert you to a possible problem. An up-to-date list of counterfeits around the world can be found here.
Country Of Origin Fraud
Cheap substitutes have sometimes been labeled as far more expensive prized regional products—like expensive wines, rich Kona coffee beans or Modena balsamic vinegar. In addition, companies may use coy labeling without making outright claims, such as calling potato chips made in the state of Washington “Hawaiian,” which triggered a lawsuit by annoyed consumers.
Protect yourself by purchasing products from well-known, reputable companies that prioritize safety and quality, Hellberg advised. “Many companies have well-thought-out plans to verify and inspect ingredients from suppliers to be sure they are genuine,” she explained. And don’t necessarily be seduced by a sexy or appealing product name or picture.
Gluten-Free Foods That Contain Gluten
In 2017, dietitian Tricia Thompson, founder of Gluten Free Watchdog, spearheaded a citizen’s petition to the FDA asking for increased surveillance, investigation and enforcement of gluten-free misbranding violations. In the last three years, she said, consumers have reported dozens of products labeled gluten-free that actually contain gluten a continually updated list is available here.
Everything from lentils to cookie dough to smoked salmon chowder violated the standards. The good news, Thompson said, is that six of eight misbranded products she reported to the FDA in 2020 have been recalled.
“The FDA has taken action recently,” she noted. And that, she said, “is a very big deal.” The bad news, she said, is that “no action has been taken by the FDA against malt or hydrolyzed wheat protein in soy sauce.” Malt can be derived from barley, a gluten-containing grain. In response, FDA spokesperson Nathan Arnold referred HuffPost to the administration’s official statement and noted that the FDA’s first response to a violation is to work with companies toward a voluntary recall, such as this one.
To protect yourself, familiarize yourself with the actual rules and regulations. Know that malt can often be barley malt, and that soy sauce can often be derived from wheat. Read labels rather than accept claims. Follow consumer advocacy sites like Gluten Free Watchdog to remain up to date, and be aware that the safest products are those whole grains and beans you inspect yourself.
Unfortunately, it’s still common for fish and seafood to be mislabeled , with cheap or farmed brands passed off as more succulent or wild-caught varieties.
Asian pangasius (or ponga) may be labeled sole or flounder or grouper, and farmed salmon may be sold as “wild-caught.” Since over 90% of seafood we eat here in the U.S. is imported, it can be hard to know what you’re getting.
Consumers should ask questions at the fish store, including where, when and how the fish was caught. If the price seems too good to be true, beware, Hellberg said. And whenever possible, she said to purchase a whole fish or purchase local seafood, not seafood that has traveled through several countries on its way to your plate.
Confusing Labels That May Unintentionally Mislead
In 2016, the FDA published new rules for nutrition facts labels for packaged foods. As mentioned, manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual sales switched by Jan. 1, 2020 ― manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales have until Jan. 1, 2021, to comply.
The labels can be confusing to consumers, however. “In some cases, there’s a disconnect between FDA rules of the road and what consumers expect,” explained compliance specialist Debra Topham , who specializes in reviewing food, beverage, meat, poultry and supplement labels for compliance to FDA, FTC and USDA regulations. For instance, because labels now need to show total sugars, manufacturers may reduce sugar and add in sweeteners with few or no calories, such as stevia, erythitol or allulose. At first glance this might seem like a healthy step, but research has shown that intensely sweet sugar substitutes are not always healthy they can overstimulate your taste receptors and actually increase sweets cravings.
To help read labels better, understand that a food that boasts “ no sugar added ” can still have a lot of sugar naturally present, such as a fruit juice. Also keep in mind that a food labeled “reduced sugar” needs to have 25% less than a “regular” version of the same food. Neither label necessarily means a food is low in sugar, however. So make sure to look for all sugars present, whether natural or added.
Similarly, a low-sodium claim doesn’t mean no sodium—look at how much a serving size is on the label. A can of beans might contain two or three servings, and the sodium can add up if you eat the contents of the entire can.
Be aware of how a serving size is defined. In some cases, Topham said, the way the FDA defines a serving size is changing. “A serving for carbonated beverages and flavored waters is now 240 milliliters, but is going up to 360 milliliters.” That, she said, is more in line with actual consumer behavior. To help you navigate the confusion over new labeling, Harvard Health has provided an explanation.
Overall, Topham said, go back to basics. “The simplest thing is to make wise dietary choices. Look for lower-sodium and lower-fat foods when you have the option. Work with a nutritionist to help you learn what’s appropriate for you to eat,” she said. Healthier products are in store in the future, as the FDA plans to work with manufacturers over the next five to 10 years to help the food industry move to lower sodium levels. “We can’t do it all of a sudden,” Topham said, “as it would shock the consumer’s palate.”
But even now, she said, everybody can make healthy, common sense choices.
Making sense of food labels.
Trying to figure out nutritional information on labels and packaging isn’t easy. The good news is that we can help. These food labels are especially helpful if you use carb counting to plan your meals!
If you get tripped up on food content claims, you’re not alone. Fat free vs. low fat vs. reduced fat. Low cholesterol vs. reduced cholesterol. It’s confusing, and it can be tough when you’re trying to make the right choices.
Start by looking at the serving size. All of the information on the label is based on the serving size listed. If you eat more, that means you'll be getting more calories, carbohydrates, etc. than what is listed.
Amount per serving
The information on the left side of the label tells you the total of the different nutrients in one serving of the food. Use these numbers to compare labels of similar foods.
Calories are a unit of energy—think of them as the energy your body consumes and uses for bodily functions. Curious how many calories you need? Talk with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RD/RDN).
Total carbohydrate on the label includes all three types of carbohydrate: sugar, starch and fiber. It's important to use the total grams when counting carbs or choosing which foods to include. Below the Total Carbohydrate (carbs), you will find a breakdown of the types of carbohydrate in the food. Learn more about carbs.
One of the three types of carbohydrates in food is sugar. As of January 2021, labels must include added sugar to help you know the difference between sugar that occurs naturally in the food (like yogurt or fruit) and sugar that was added during processing (like in cookies, candy and soda). Many labels have already made the change. Learn more about sugar and the three main types of carbohydrates.
Fiber is the part of plant foods that is not digested–or for some types, only partially digested. Dried beans such as kidney or pinto beans, fruits, vegetables and whole intact grains are all good sources of fiber. The amount of fiber you need depends on your age and gender. Healthy adults need between 25 and 38 grams of fiber a day on average—you can find recommendations for your age group and gender in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Learn more about fiber and the three main types of carbohydrates.
Sugar alcohols are a type of sugar substitute that have fewer calories per gram than sugars and starches. Sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol are examples of sugar alcohols. If a food contains sugar alcohols, it would be listed on the label under Total Carbohydrate. It’s important to keep in mind that foods that contain sugar alcohols are not necessarily low in carbohydrate or calories. And, just because a package says "sugar-free" on the outside does not mean that it is calorie or carbohydrate-free. Always check the label for the grams of total carbohydrate and calories. Learn more about sugar alcohols.
Total fat tells you how much fat is in one serving of the food. In general when it comes to fat, try to replace foods high in saturated fat or trans fat with foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to reduce your risk of heart disease. Learn more about fats.
Sodium is the scientific term for salt. It does not affect blood sugar. However, excess dietary sodium increases your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. With some foods, you can taste how salty they are, such as pickles or bacon. But there is also hidden salt in many foods, like salad dressings, lunch meat, canned soups and other packaged foods. Reading labels can help you find these hidden sources and compare the sodium in different foods. Whether you have diabetes or not, 2300 milligrams (mg) or less per day is the general recommendation. If you have high blood pressure, talk with your health care team to find out the best goal for you.
List of ingredients
Ingredient lists can be a helpful tool. Ingredients are listed in order by weight with the first ingredient being the highest amount in the food. Knowing the ingredients is useful in making healthy choices like increasing fiber (look for words like whole grain, whole wheat, etc.) or decreasing sugar (look for words like cane sugar, agave, maple syrup, honey, etc.).
Percent Daily Values (%DV)
The Percent Daily Values for each nutrient are found in the right column on the label. These tell you what percent of each nutrient the food provides if you were on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. As a general rule of thumb, aim for less than 5% for nutrients you want to limit, such as sodium and saturated fat. Aim for 20% or more for nutrients you want to get more of such as fiber, vitamin D, calcium and iron.
“Net carbs” and other nutrient claims
You've probably seen the term "net carbs" on some food packages. Many food companies make claims about the amount of carbohydrate in their products. However, “net carbs” doesn’t have a legal definition from the FDA, and they are not used by the American Diabetes Association. Always look at the Total Carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts label first. Checking your blood sugar can help you figure out how specific carbs affect you.
Net carbs isn’t the only confusing nutrition claim you’ll find on food packages. For example, have you ever wondered what the difference is between fat free, saturated fat free, low fat and reduced and less fat? The government has defined some claims that can be used on food packaging. Here’s what they mean:
How to Read Carbohydrates on Food Labels and Choosing a Healthy Product
The components mentioned above are the basic things you should know when scanning food labels. You can read here to know more on how to understand the food labels in general: How to Read a Food Label and really Understand those Numbers
So what if you want to know how many carbohydrate servings you will get when eating the product? Knowing how to read carbohydrates on food labels is important if you want to keep track of your carbohydrates intake.
Remember! 1 Serving of Carbohydrate = 15 g of Carbohydrates
When learning how to read carbohydrates on food labels, always remember that 1 serving of carbohydrate is equal to 15 g of carbohydrates.
If you want to have a snack, it is recommended to eat no more than 1 to 2 servings of carbohydrates in one sitting. That would be around 15 to 30 g of carbohydrates.
For the main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner), 2 to 3 servings of carbs would be enough. That is about 30-45 g of carbohydrates. 3 servings of carbohydrates are about the size of 1 fist size of rice.
Main meal = 30-45 g of carbohydrates.
When scanning the food label, looking at the grams of carbohydrate per serving would help you to estimate how much you can eat the food in an appropriate amount.
Learn how to read carbohydrates on food labels by looking at this sample food label of a cracker product,
From the label, it shows that
Serving Size: 30 g (3 pieces crackers)
Total Carbohydrate Per Serving: 20.6 g carbohydrate for every serving.
If you want to have a snack (which is 15 to 30 g of carbohydrate), eating 3 crackers (1 serving) would be enough already because you will get 20.6 g for every 3 pieces of crackers.
If you want to have this cracker as your carbohydrate for your main meal (30 to 45 g of carbohydrate per meal), eating up to 6 crackers would be okay. That is 2 servings of this product (contains about 41.2 g of carbohydrate).
That is how you roughly estimate it!
Some Food Labels Include Dietary Fibre Under Total Carbohydrate
Different countries have a different way of showing the total carbohydrates figures. For example, countries like the United States, Canada, and Philippines include dietary fibre under total carbohydrates. You can see from the label below that dietary fibre is under ‘Total Carbohydrate’. However, in most other countries including Singapore, China, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia, the “Total Carbohydrates” actually excludes fibre. If you’re counting carbohydrates to titrate to insulin, it’s important to take note of what the labels mean in different countries.
Fibre is a type of carbohydrate. However, it cannot be broken down into sugar by our body, and instead, it passes through the body undigested. Some of the fibre (i.e. soluble fibre) will be fermented by bacteria in the large intestine. The fermentation process provides a small number of calories in the form of Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA) which will not directly raise your blood glucose. Therefore, we need to subtract the dietary fibre content from the total carbohydrate to get the real figures of carbohydrate serving when referring to the food labels from countries like US, Canada, and the Philippines.
For people with diabetes that are treated with insulin, getting the most accurate carbohydrate serving may help control blood sugars better. Calculating the total carbohydrate without subtracting the fibre may cause you to miscalculate the insulin dosage accurately if you are getting a product from the US, Canada or the Philippines.
Let see how to read carbohydrates on food labels that include fibre under total carbohydrates,
From the label, the total carbohydrate is 37 g (
2.5 servings carbohydrates). But when you subtract the dietary fibre (4 g), it becomes 33 g of carbohydrates (
2 servings carbohydrates). That means, only 33 g of carbohydrates that will give impact to the blood glucose.
This is something important to consider when you want to manage your blood glucose closely. Read carefully when looking up the food labels of imported food products, especially from these countries.
Avoid High-Sugar Products
Apart from learning how to read carbohydrates on food labels, a rule of thumb that you should follow when controlling carbohydrate intake is to always choose low-sugar or sugar-free products. For easy reference, this is the guideline to tell you if the product is high sugar or not.
High Sugar: more than 22.5 g of total sugars per 100 g
Low: 5 g of total sugars or less per 100 g
A simpler way to detect high sugar products is to scan through the ingredients list. Make sure that sugar is not on the first 3 ingredients. The lower it is on the ingredients list, the better. Beware of words like ‘concentrate’, ‘syrup’, ‘juice’, ‘crystals’, and words ending in -ose, which are probably names of different sugar types.
Choose High-Fibre Products
Choosing a high-fibre product is also a good tip if you want to manage your blood glucose reading. Fibre is very important in regulating blood glucose and helps stabilize sugar spike. Choose a product that contains 3 to 5 g or more of fibre per serving. If the product is lower than 3 g, eating some vegetables with the product can help boost the fibre!
It is recommended to eat fibre about 20g for women and 26g for men every day. This equates to two servings of fruit and two servings of vegetables per day. Eating whole grain products can help you achieve this fibre recommendation.
How much do consumers use (and understand) nutrition labels?“There were originally two options put forward, the main proposal, which we saw behind Mrs. Obama at the launch, and one with a clear difference between ‘get more’ and ‘get less’ nutrients. That alternate option just keeps getting lost," said WGC/Oldways' Cynthia Harriman.
Through its National Eating Trends service, which has monitored daily eating and drinking habits of US consumers for the past 30 years, NPD asks consumers their level of agreement with the statement, “I frequently check labels to determine whether the foods I buy contain anything I’m trying to avoid.” After the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed in 1990, 65% of consumers said they completely or mostly agree with the statement. That percentage remained steady throughout the early 1990s, at 64% in 1995 after the labels began appearing on food packaging. Since then, the percentage of consumers in agreement has varied, though it reached a low of 48% in 2013.
Dip in label use means that it’s working … and that consumers are creatures of habit
NPD chief industry analyst Harry Balzer attributes this in large part to the success of the nutrition labels in educating Americans about what’s in their food, especially because we tend to be creatures of habit.
“After all, how many times do you need to look at the Nutrition Facts label on your favorite cereal, or your favorite juice, and any other food you routinely consume?” he said.
But WGC’s director of nutrition strategies Cynthia Harriman told FoodNavigator-USA that even though it’s dropped, the figure is still quite impressive. “If there was a new drug that worked in half the people it was tested on you’d say, ‘Wow, that’s a great drug!’” she said.
The dip in frequency of label use also could indicate that the timing is right for an update, which will encourage consumers to revisit labels. It also gives the federal government a chance to clarify some mixed nutrition messages, Harriman added.
Nutrition Facts labels list a breakdown of the total carbohydrate from dietary fiber, sugars and sugar alcohols. This can be confusing.
On Nutrition Facts food labels, the grams of dietary fiber are already included in the total carbohydrate count, but because fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body can’t digest, the fiber does not increase your blood sugar levels. You may subtract the grams of fiber from the total carbohydrate. View this example Nutrition Facts label showing fiber.
On a nutrition food label, subtract the fiber from the total carbohydrate amount.
When you read food labels, the grams of sugar are already included in the total carbohydrate amount, so you do not need to count this sugar amount separately. The grams of sugar listed include both natural sugars, from fruit or milk, and added sugars.
On a nutrition food label, the total carbohydrate includes the sugar.
Some Nutrition Facts labels may also list sugar alcohols under total carbohydrate. Sugar alcohols may be found in products that are labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.” But don’t be fooled – sugar alcohols are still a form of carbohydrate, and they still affect your blood sugar levels, if not as dramatically. Usually about half of the sugar alcohol is counted as carbohydrate. Learn more about counting sugar alcohols.
When counting carbohydrates, include half of the sugar from the sugar alcohol.
The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label
The following is a quick guide to reading the Nutrition Facts label.
Step 1: Start with the Serving Size
- Look here for both the serving size (the amount people typically eat at one time) and the number of servings in the package.
- Compare your portion size (the amount you actually eat) to the serving size listed on the panel. The Nutrition Facts applies to the serving size, so if the serving size is one cup and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the calories, fat and other nutrients than what is listed on the label.
Step 2: Check Out the Total Calories
Step 3: Let the Percent Daily Values Be a Guide
- Use percent Daily Values (DV) to help evaluate how a particular food fits into your daily meal plan. Percent DV are for the entire day, not just one meal or snack. Daily Values are average levels of nutrients for a person eating 2,000 calories a day. A food item with a 5% DV of fat provides 5% of the total fat that a person consuming 2,000 calories a day should eat.
- You may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day. For some nutrients you may need more or less than 100% DV.
- Low is 5% or less. Aim low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium.
- High is 20% or more. Aim high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Step 4: Check Out the Nutrition Terms
- Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.
- Low cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
- Reduced: At least 25% less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product.
- Good source of: Provides at least 10 to 19% of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.
- Excellent source of: Provides at least 20% or more of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.
- Calorie free: Less than five calories per serving.
- Fat free/sugar free: Less than ½ gram of fat or sugar per serving.
- Low sodium: 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
- High in: Provides 20% or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving.
Step 5: Choose Low in Saturated Fat, Added Sugars and Sodium
- Eating less saturated fat, added sugars and sodium may help reduce your risk for chronic disease.
- Saturated fat and trans fat are linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
- Eating too much added sugar makes it difficult to meet nutrient needs within your calorie requirement.
- High levels of sodium can add up to high blood pressure.
- Remember to aim for low percentage DV of these nutrients.
Step 6: Get Enough Vitamins, Minerals and Fiber
- Eat more fiber, potassium, vitamin D, calcium and iron to maintain good health and help reduce your risk of certain health problems such as osteoporosis and anemia.
- Choose more fruits and vegetables to get more of these nutrients.
- Remember to aim high for percentage DV of these nutrients.
Step 7: Consider the Additional Nutrients
You know about calories, but it also is important to know about the additional nutrients on the Nutrition Facts label.
- Protein: A percentage Daily Value for protein is not required on the label. Eat moderate portions of lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, plus beans and peas, peanut butter, seeds and soy products.
- Carbohydrates: There are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches and fiber. Eat whole-grain breads, cereals, rice and pasta plus fruits and vegetables.
- Sugars: Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, occur naturally in foods such as fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) or come from refined sources such as table sugar (sucrose) or corn syrup. Added sugars are included on the updated Nutrition Facts label. The 2020-2025Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming no more than 10% of daily calories from added sugars.
Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Those in the largest amounts are listed first. This information is particularly helpful to individuals with food sensitivities, those who wish to avoid pork or shellfish, limit added sugars or people who prefer vegetarian eating.
The new Nutrition Facts label appears on all food items as of January 1, 2021. Learn more about the new labels by visiting the FDA website.
It&aposs important to note that serving sizes of packaged foods don&apost always reflect the amount you may eat. So when you look at a package of Oreo cookies and see calories per serving, it&aposs not for the whole sleeve you might be tempted to eat, but for just three cookies (boo).
To help consumers, the FDA is changing the way serving sizes are displayed to make them more eye-catching, and also updating their table of "Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed" (which companies use to define serving sizes) to more realistically reflect consumer habits.
By law, serving sizes must be based on amounts of food and beverage products people are actually eating. For example, a serving of ice cream is now a two-thirds cup instead of a half-cup, and the serving size for many beverages has increased as well from 12 to 20 ounces.
“You definitely want to know how many servings are in whatever it is that you’re buying,” Horton says. “It’s not all that uncommon for a product to look like a single serving and the nutrition looks a-OK and then you look a little closer and notice that it’s 2 (or more) servings per container.”
Keep serving sizes in mind as you choose your favorite snack food or sweet treat, making sure you are aware of the increase in amount of calories, fat, and sugar you will consume if you eat a larger portion. Adhering to serving sizes is a great way to practice portion control, and we advise sticking to the given amount in most cases, to help you fill up on a wide variety of healthy foods.
However, sometimes proper serving sizes can be hard to determine when making a recipe or packing a bag of grapes on-the-go. We’ve created a handy serving size guide for moments when it’s not as easy as simply reading a label to find out how much you need.
Health Educator’s Nutrition Toolkit
Teach your audience how to use the new Nutrition Facts label and make informed choices.
"Behind the Label” with FDA Information for Educators
View this video for health educators that explains the changes to the Nutrition Facts label.
How to Read a Dog Food Label
We all want the best for our dogs, including nutrition. And anyone who has shopped for dog food knows, there are virtually unlimited options: Hundreds of brands with innumerable ingredients wet, dry, and raw food age-specific food restricted diets, along with all sorts of advertising and marketing claims to decipher. The label is the best tool to use when you make a choice, but can often be hard to understand. We’re here to demystify how to read a dog food label.
Dog Food Label Format
All pet food labels follow roughly the same format:
- Product and brand name or unique identifier.
- Quantity in terms of product weight, liquid measure, or count, depending on the formulation of the food.
- Guaranteed analysis, which specifies the amount of specific nutrients.
- Ingredients, which must be listed in descending order by weight.
- Nutritional adequacy statement, which must be backed up by testing that proves the food provides a certain level of nutrients. It may also include the life stages the food is appropriate for.
- Feeding directions.
- Manufacturer’s name and address
- Calorie statement
Now that you know what is listed, what does it all mean? Let’s take them one at a time.
Quick Tip: It’s all in the wording.
There’s more to the product name than clever marketing. The name will actually give you your first clue about the ingredients. Because so many pet owners base their buying decision on a specific ingredient, brands will try to highlight that ingredient in the product name. But it’s all in the wording. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has four rules:
- The 95 Percent Rule: At least 95 percent of the product must be the named ingredient, for example, “Chicken for Dogs,” or “Salmon Dog Food,” must include at least 95 percent of chicken or salmon, respectively. In addition, this main product must be at least 70 percent of the total product when counting the added water. According to AAFCO regulations, the remaining five percent of ingredients will be those required for nutritional reasons, such as vitamins and minerals, and small amounts of any other ingredients.
- The 25 Percent Rule: When you see products named “Beef Dinner for Dogs,” “Chicken and Sweet Potato Entrée,” or “Lamb Platter,” for example, this is the 25 percent rule in action. If the named ingredients comprise at least 25 percent of the product (not counting the water for processing), but less than 95 percent, the product name must include a qualifying term, such as dinner, entrée, or platter. Counting the added water, the named ingredients still must comprise 10 percent of the product. If more than one ingredient is included in a “dinner,” the combination of the named ingredients must total 25 percent of the product and be listed in the same order as found on the ingredient list.
- The “With” Rule: When you see a dog food label, such as “Doggie Dinner With Beef,” the “With . . .” ingredient need only be at least 3 percent of the product. Just the addition of that one word — “with” — dramatically changes the percentage requirement of the ingredient in the food and is a good reason to pay attention to the product name.
- The Flavor Rule: According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), if the label says “Beef Flavor Dog Food,” then “a specific percentage (of the beef) is not required, but a product must contain an amount sufficient to be able to be detected.” In this example, the word “flavor” must appear on the label in the same size, style, and color as the word “beef.”
Quick Tip: Don’t go by looks.
The quantity listed on the label tells you how much of the food is in the container. This may be measured by weight, liquid measure, or by count. Products can vary in density (think wet food vs. dry food, for example). So if you really want to know how much a product costs, do a cost-per-ounce or cost-per-pound comparison.
Quick Tip: Look at the basic four: protein, fat, fiber, and water.
Many states have regulations requiring the minimum amount of nutrients a pet food must contain, as well as the maximum amount of moisture and crude fiber. Dog food labels must display the percentage of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and water. For those who like to get really technical, there’s a detailed explanation of how the guaranteed analysis is calculated on the FDA website.
If there are specific guarantees, such as that the food is low-fat, then both the maximum and minimum percentage of the item must be guaranteed. If a product claims to have vitamin or mineral supplements, there must be a guarantee of the amount the product supplies.
Quick Tip: Ingredients are listed in order by weight.
According to Dr. Jerry Klein, the AKC’s chief veterinary officer, the ingredients section is the most important part of the label to read. Ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight. Each ingredient must be listed individually, and, according to AAFCO regulations, terms describing collective ingredients, such as “animal protein products” are not allowed. In addition, ingredients must be listed by their “common or usual name.” The AAFCO has a detailed list of ingredients, their common names, and what they contain.
A word about byproducts: While we may not want to eat them, byproducts are not necessarily a bad addition in dog food. They include parts such as the liver, which is rich in vitamin A. Other byproducts include blood, brains, bone, stomach, and cleaned intestines. Meat meal may also contain ingredients we consider byproducts. It sounds gross, but your dog might not agree.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement
Quick Tip: Look for the fine print on the side or back of the package.
Many dog foods claim to be “complete and balanced” or “100 percent nutritious.” These aren’t just marketing terms. Dr. Klein says, “The phrase means that the food has met specific government standards and provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages of adult dogs, as determined by AAFCO.” The food has to contain the proper amount and ratio of essential nutrients for the needs of a healthy dog.
Often the nutritional adequacy statement identifies the life stage the food is appropriate for. AAFCO recognizes these stages:
Some products are labeled for a more specific use or life stage, such as “senior” or for a specific size or breed. The FDA says, “There is little information as to the true dietary needs of these more specific uses, and no rules governing these types of statements have been established. Thus, a “senior” diet must meet the requirements for adult maintenance, but no more.”
The nutritional adequacy statement must be in a standardized format, which makes it easy to compare products.
Quick Tip: Feeding directions are guidelines, not regulations. Regardless of what the package says, consult your vet.
This is pretty straightforward — the label tells you how much you should feed your dog. This is listed either by the weight of the food per pound or measure of food per cup. However, as the FDA says, breed, temperament, environment, and many other factors can influence food intake.
According to Dr. Klein, it’s also important to note the “sell-by” or “best-used-by” statement. He says, “Due to the nature of the ingredients used in all dog foods, including fats and proteins, the food can go rancid. Expired dog food offers less nutritional value and can grow harmful bacteria or mold that can sicken your dog.”
Deciphering the Descriptive Terms
There are so many new trends in pet food that it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re getting. Is “organic” the same as “natural”? What does “lite” mean? Is “grain-free” a good thing? Does my dog need “new proteins”?
Organic: There are currently no official regulations specific to the labeling of organic foods for pets, although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is developing some. In the meantime, dog foods that claim to be organic must meet the ingredient, production, and handling requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program to be considered organic. In simple terms, organic dog food is defined the same way organic human food is:
- No artificial preservatives, coloring, or flavoring.
- No antibiotics or growth hormones in meat and meat by-products.
- No or little fillers.
Is organic pet food better? The jury is still out on this. High-quality commercial dog food meets the AAFCO’s stringent nutritional guidelines and lists any type of fillers fairly low on the ingredient list. Sometimes dogs with sensitive stomachs do better with organic food, and some organic foods have beneficial antioxidants. Organic food is, however, more expensive. Frankly, it’s your call.
“Natural” is not the same as “organic.” The latter term refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or animals were raised. For the most part, “natural” can be construed as equivalent to a lack of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives in the product
Grain-free: There is little veterinary science to support the benefits of grain-free dog food. That being said, Lisa Freeman, veterinary nutritionist and professor of clinical nutrition at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, has written that there’s a possibility that an increase in a heart disease called cardiomyopathy is “associated with eating boutique or grain-free diets, with some of the dogs improving when their diets are changed.” Some dogs actually do better with the high-fiber content of grains. Grain-free diets are also being reviewed at this time by the FDA because there is the concern of a possible link of certain dogs or breeds of dogs to Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) — a type of canine heart disease that affects the heart muscle in certain dogs or breeds of dogs.
New proteins: No, they’re not really new. They derive from sources such as bison, kangaroo, rabbit, and other “exotic” animals. It’s tough to rate their benefits because they have different digestibility and nutrient profiles than the more common proteins. They may be suitable for dogs that have difficulty eating chicken, beef, or other meats.
Human-grade dog food: Defined as a food that is legally edible and approved as nourishment for humans, human-grade food is highly regulated by the FDA and the USDA. However, according to the AAFCO, for a product to be human edible, all ingredients in the product must be human edible and the product must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations in 21 CFR 110, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food.
Also, human-grade dog food is not necessarily safer, tastier, or less expensive than high-quality pet food.
Lite, low-calorie, and low-fat: To use any of these terms, the food must have a significant reduction of calories or fat compared to standard pet food. The AAFCO requires that labels making these claims must show the percentage reduction in calories or fats and must name a product for comparison.
Cheat Sheet for Reading Pet Food Labels
You probably now know more than you ever thought possible about all those words on your dog’s food packaging. This information should make you a better-informed consumer, helping you to choose the best possible diet for your pup. Here’s a quick cheat sheet to help you remember all of this when you’re standing in the dog food aisle:
You're standing in the supermarket aisle looking at 2 similar products, trying to decide which to choose. You want to make the healthier choice, but you're in a hurry.
If you're buying ready meals, check to see if there's a nutrition label on the front of the pack, and then see how your choices stack up when it comes to the amount of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.
If the nutrition labels use colour coding, you'll often find a mixture of red, amber and green.
So when you're choosing between similar products, try to go for more greens and ambers, and fewer reds, if you want to make a healthier choice.
But remember, even healthier ready meals may be higher in fat and energy than the homemade equivalent.
And if you make the meal yourself, you could also save money.