3 Things You Can Pretty Much Ignore on a Nutrition Label
Plus, four that are worth paying attention to.
While more than three in four Americans say they look at the nutrition facts on a label before purchasing, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Health and Diet Survey, a full 18 percent don't think any of those figures matter.
One dietitian we spoke with actually partially agrees with the don't-ask-don't-tell cohort: "Food is so much more than a number," says Ashley Reaver, R.D., a registered dietitian at Ashley Reaver Nutrition LLC in Oakland, California.
While there are many crucial details to note on nutrition labels and food packages, there are a handful of facts you can absolutely ignore. Here's the skinny about the stats that are not worth stressing about—and the ones worth seeking out.
3 Things You *Don't* Need to Focus on
Don't stress about these three things on the label.
Pictured Recipe: Ceviche-Stuffed Avocados
1. Calories From Fat
Remember the cut-the-fat craze of the 1990s?
"This is a relic on the nutrition label when fat was demonized," Reaver says. "The low-fat diet trend helped to usher in the age of higher sugar content that lead to the diabetes epidemic. Fat is not bad."
In fact, "on the new  nutrition labels, the percentage of calories from fat will be taken off. What kind of fat is the part that's really important to monitor," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table.
Aim for mostly monounsaturated fats, which can be found in seafood, nuts, avocados and olive oil, and limit saturated fat (found in beef, butter and cheese) to 10 percent or less of total fat when looking at the label.
Over the course of the day, a balance between fat, carbohydrates and protein (AKA macronutrients) is important. Analyzing the total fat content of one food does not tell the story of how balanced your diet actually is for one day.
Related: 4 Good Foods to Eat Full-Fat
Speaking of that flashback, "cholesterol was a really hot topic in the '80s and '90s," says Taub-Dix, but "the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans explained that dietary cholesterol isn't as harmful as saturated or trans fats."
While it sounds contrary, "dietary cholesterol [found in animal-based foods] has a very small impact on cholesterol levels in humans. Eating cholesterol does not translate to higher levels of cholesterol in our bodies. For heart-health benefits, focus on saturated fat content of a food instead of cholesterol, as intake of saturated fat has a significant impact on cholesterol levels." For example, eggs and shrimp are high in cholesterol, but low in saturated fat—and don't appear to be detrimental to blood cholesterol despite containing dietary cholesterol.
If you don't have heart disease and otherwise eat a balanced diet that includes plant-based protein options, like beans and tofu (as in you're not doing the keto diet that promotes too much animal protein), then you don't need to worry.
3. Any Nutrition Claims on the Front of the Package
From "natural" to "GMO-free" to "clean," the big, bold words on the front of a bag or box can be uber-confusing.
"Front-of-package terms are often not credible or defined or regulated by the government," says Taub-Dix. "'Natural,' for example, has no real meaning. The front of a package is like a trailer to a movie. It gives you a taste of what's to come, but you really need to flip the package over to the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list for the full story."
4 Facts That Really Matter on a Nutrition Label
Here's what actually matters on the food label and how to decipher the details.
Pictured Recipe: Better-Than-Takeout Burgers with Sweet Potato Fries
"These are the most important thing on the nutrition label," Reaver says, especially relative to the portion size, adds Taub-Dix.
The amount of calories will help you decide if this item is a snack, meal or an ingredient in a meal.
"Calorie needs are different for everyone, but most women need at least 1,600 calories per day. This increases based on activity level and body size," Reaver says. (Take a peek at this article—What Does a 1,500 Calorie Day Look Like?—to put this into perspective.)
Roughly speaking, each meal should contain about 400 to 500 calories, with one or two snacks making up the difference.
Read More: How Many Calories Do You Need to Lose Weight
Not all foods need to include bodybuilder-levels of protein, "but if a packaged food will be an entire meal or snack, you'll want to ensure that it contains some protein. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 10 grams for snacks and 20 grams for meals," Reaver says.
Mainly an issue in processed or packaged foods, "sodium should not be greater than 20 percent of the 'DV,' or recommended Daily Value," Reaver says. "Foods with nutrition labels tend to be much higher in sodium than fresh foods since they are processed in order to prolong their shelf life. Sodium is a great way to do that."
The current dietary guidelines recommend limiting daily intake of sodium to 2,300 milligrams or less, which is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of sodium per day. If you have a preexisting condition, like diabetes or heart disease where your doctor says you need to limit your sodium intake even more, like closer to 1,500 milligrams, then it's especially important to keep an eye on how much sodium your packaged foods contain. If you are an otherwise healthy person whose diet is primarily made up of whole foods where you add the salt yourself—without too heavy of a hand—, and only have packaged foods occasionally, then you're less likely to overdo it on the sodium.
4. Added Sugars
Come July 1, 2020 when the new nutrition facts panel rules go into effect, every manufacturer will be required to include grams of added sugar on the nutrition facts panel.
"Many foods have natural sugar, such as dairy and fruit. Added sugars are the ones you'd like to limit as much as possible in packaged foods," Reaver says.
Shoot to take in less than 20 grams of added sugars per day. (See more about how much sugar is acceptable to snack on, according to a dietitian.)
The Bottom Line
Speaking of that full story, what really matters with all of this label lingo in mind?
"What to pay attention to on the nutrition label really depends on what part of the label speaks most to you. If you have high blood pressure, sodium is important. Diabetes? Carbs or added sugar would be good to note," Taub-Dix says.
Most importantly, keep in mind that the optimal foods for you will say nothing at all.
"The best foods to eat won't have a nutrition label," Reaver says. "And, an important thing to remember about nutrition is that it is all an educated guess. Trying to hit any number right on the head is futile since we use estimates to create a calorie and macronutrient range, and then tracking apps don't know the extra macronutrient combination in the food you are eating."