Can someone please explain the meaning of a serving size??

By Roxanne Adamiyatt
Updated Mar 09, 2020 @ 6:00 pm
How to Read a Nutrition Label

If you've ever peeked at the nutrition facts on the side of a cereal box and instantly felt overwhelmed and confused, well, welcome to the club. Sure, you probably know that too much sugar or sodium is bad for you — but knowing how to read a nutrition label takes a bit of know-how.

Maybe you're on a high-protein diet and trying to keep track of your net carbs or, perhaps you want to know more about the various types of fat listed on a label and what they mean over the long haul. Either way, it doesn't hurt to know more about what all of those numbers and percentages mean and how to make them work for your day-to-day.

Ahead, celebrity nutritionist Charles Passler, DC, and Gillean Barkyoumb, RD, creator of Millenial Nutrition, weigh in on what you need to know about a nutrition label to take control of your health.

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Check out the serving size.

This is the first place you'll want your eyes to land, Barkyoumb says, namely because it can help put into perspective what the rest of the numbers on the label mean.

"Sure, something can only be 100 calories and have 5 grams of sugar," she says. "But when you realize that a realistic amount you’d eat is three servings — now it’s a different story."

Reading a serving size is fairly simple. For instance, if it says one cup next to "serving size," then that means the numbers on the label (e.g. calories, total fat, fiber, etc.) are for each one-cup serving of the food you're consuming.

The number of ingredients matters.

Keep in mind that a long list of ingredients typically means the foods are over-processed, Barkyoumb says. This isn't always the case, "but it's a good rule of thumb," she says. For this reason, she recommends you "choose foods with five ingredients or less," when possible.

And, since marketers tend to take liberties with their packaging, you'll also want to make sure that the ingredients reflect what you are purchasing, Dr. Passler says. For instance, if you are buying almond butter, but the ingredients list hydrogenated vegetable oil (and not just almonds), then you're better off skipping it and opting for a brand that only includes the real thing.

Don't be fooled by sugar's many names.

Scoping out a label for sugar can get confusing, Barkyoumb says, because it may be disguised by any one of its more than 60 names, including cane juice, agave nectar, dextrose, honey, fructose, barley malt syrup, and so forth.

When it comes to the difference between naturally-occurring sugars and added sugars, the language gives a hint at one major difference: While some sugar naturally occurs in fruit and even cow's milk, Barkyoumb says, added sugar is — you guessed it — added to food during processing. On a label, you'll be able to identify this by taking a look at the numbers next to total sugars and added sugars.

For example, if a label lists total sugars at 5g, but added sugar at 0g, then that means all of the sugar in that item is naturally occurring. On the other hand, total sugars listed at 12g and added sugars at 10g, means the item contains only 2 g of naturally-occurring sugars.

Lucky for you, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new guidelines in 2016 that — along with a dual column that highlights calories per serving and per package — required manufacturers to list added sugars on a label, making it easier for you to identify the type of sugars in a food, Barkyoumb says.

Another ingredient to watch for on the label, Dr. Passler says: "Natural flavoring." The term, he explains, can act as a Trojan horse, in that it could be covering for ingredients that are anything but natural, like monosodium glutamate (MSG), "which is really something that you should aim to avoid."

One last thing to keep in mind is that sugar isn't necessarily the enemy, Dr. Passler says. The human brain functions off of sugar, and it's the type of sugar (and how much) you consume that really makes the difference. For example, the sugar in fruit is harder to break down and absorb and therefore, better for you.

Nutrition Label

Keep tabs on sodium.

Another key thing to keep in mind? The sodium content in any packaged item you are about to consume, Barkyoumb says.

"Salt is often used as a preservative to increase the amount of time a food can be considered edible," she explains. "Processed foods typically have more sodium (along with other preservatives) to extend their shelf life."

While the Dietary Guidelines suggest limiting sodium to 2,300 mg per day, Barkyoumb says the ideal daily sodium limit is closer to 1,500 mg.

Learn the specifics about fat.

If the various types of fat listed on a label are throwing you for a loop, here's a little explainer. There are three main types of fats: saturated, unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), and trans fats.

  • Saturated fats: These fats are solid at room temperature. "Think about a marbled steak that is sitting on the counter," she says. "Even at room temperature, that fat on the steak will not melt."
  • Unsaturated fats: These fats become liquid at room temperature and are found predominantly in foods found from plants, such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. "The difference between mono- and polyunsaturated fats are their chemical structures," Barkyoumb explains. "They have a number of beneficial functions in the body, such as easing inflammation and supporting heart and brain health."
  • Trans fats: These fats are made by heating liquid vegetable oils through a process called hydrogenation. "Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils make the foods more stable and less likely to go bad," Barkyoumb explains. "However, they have also been linked to increased cholesterol, inflammation, and insulin resistance."

In general, you'll want to limit your intake of saturated and trans fats and instead opt for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, according to the American Heart Association. For example, an adult who consumes 2,000 calories per day should get 20 percent to 35 percent of their total calories from fat, the Cleveland Clinic notes. Of the various types of fat, the following guidelines will help you to obtain that percentage: monounsaturated fat (15 percent to 20%), polyunsaturated fat (5 to 10%), saturated fat (less than 10%), trans fat (0 %). ​​​​

Fiber is important, too.

You probably hear the word "fiber" and think bran cereal. But fiber is more than just a component in keeping your digestive system, well, regular.

There are two types of fiber — soluble and insoluble — and both serve an important role in your overall health. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel-like material and has been linked to lowering cholesterol, stabilizing sugar levels, and feeding good bacteria in the gut, Barkyoumb explains. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, doesn’t dissolve at all. "[It] helps move material through the digestive system (aka helps you go number two)," Barkyoumb says.

A food is considered to be a good source of fiber if it has 10% of the Daily Value (DV) for fiber, or 2.5 grams, Barkyoumb says, adding: "A high-fiber food is one that has 20% of the DV or 5 grams of fiber per serving."

A recent study noted fiber is not only important to digestive health, but in decreasing the occurrence of chronic disease. Researchers saw a 15 to 30% decrease in overall mortality, as well as cardiovascular-related deaths. You'll find fiber directly below carbohydrates on a food label, which will come in handy when counting it toward your recommended 25 to 29g per day.