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A quick guide to Nutrition Information Labels

Know your food at a glance

Reading the Nutrition Information label is a quick and easy way to make informed food decisions. It may look complicated, but understanding Food Labels is actually quite easy. 

Once you know what to look for, you can instantly tell good food from bad. And the best part is, you don’t need to calculate anything or memorize complicated stuff. Let us guide you through!

Did you know that more than half of Malaysian adults (55%) do not read the label when buying or receiving food? You can change that! We should all be aware of what we feed ourselves and our families.

What is the Nutrition Information Label?

The Nutrition Information Label shows the nutrient content of packaged foods. It is also known as Nutrition Facts Label or simply Food Label.

The information that goes into Food Labels is regulated by national and international health authorities.

In Malaysia, however, these regulations are not strictly enforced, which is why you’ll find Food Labels with different formats in the supermarket. In some extreme cases, you won’t even find any label at all!

Avoid products with incomplete or missing Food Labels. Proper labels are your best tool to make healthy food choices for you and your family.

How to read the Nutrition Information Label?

Here’s an example of a typical Nutrition Information Label. We’ve numbered the main sections for your convenience. Scroll down to each number for a quick interpretation guide.

Keep in mind that this is a fictional label, intended for educational purposes only.

1. Serving Size

In this example, one serving size is 50 g. 

This is the portion size suggested by the manufacturer and NOT a nutritional recommendation of how much you should eat. Feel free to eat smaller portions if the suggested serving size is too big for you! 

The Serving Size is the first thing to check on the Food Label because most of the nutrient values that follow will refer to this portion. NOT to the total weight of the product (200 g in our example).

🚫 Warning: some products suggest smaller Serving Sizes than one would normally eat. This is a strategy to make the product look healthier, by displaying smaller numbers of calories, total sugars or cholesterol.

2. Energy or Calories

Here you find how much energy (Calories) you get from a single serving of this product (see section 1). 

There are two values here, one in kcal and one in kJ. The total energy is the same, just expressed in two different units. Let’s focus on the more universally used kcal (Calories).

In our example, one serving of 50 g provides 194 Calories. How do you know if this is good? Simple: a healthy product should provide 200 Calories per serving or less.

Watch the portions: one serving of our example product is healthy. But what if you eat the entire box at once? Totally different story: 200 g (4 servings) will load you with 776 Calories!

Remember that an average adult needs only about 2,000 Calories per day.

When it comes to calories, however, focus on quality rather than quantity. Quality calories come from wholesome foods that are rich in fiber, heart-friendly fats, protein, and vitamins.

Your daily energy needs depend on factors like your age, gender, and activity levels. Find out how many calories you need using our Grain Forest calorie calculator.  

3. Daily Values

The Percent Daily Values or % DV indicate how a single serving of a product fulfills your daily nutrient needs (as specified by health authorities like the MOH of Malaysia).

The beauty of % DVs is that you DON’T need to make any calculations to know instantly if a food is healthy.

How? Just remember this “15 & 5” rule:

High = 15% DV or more.

Aim high for fiber, unsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals (except sodium).

Low = 5% DV or less. 

Aim low for saturated fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and sodium.

Now, let’s apply the” 15 & 5” rule to our example label.

Note that some critical nutrients like trans fat and total sugars don’t have a %DV. We will address them later.

  • Saturated fats.

These fats are unhealthy and you should aim for low %DV (5% or less).

On our example label:

23% DV of Saturated Fat = BAD.

  • Cholesterol.

Excessive cholesterol intake is harmful to your heart and arteries. Aim for low %DV (5% or less).

On our example label:

21% DV of Cholesterol = BAD.

  • Sodium.

Consumed in excess, sodium (salt and MSG) leads to high blood pressure, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Aim for low %DV (5% or less).

On our example label:

5% DV of Sodium = BORDERLINE.

  • Dietary Fiber.

Fiber is healthy. It promotes regular digestion, balanced cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and a healthy body weight. Aim for high %DV (15% or more).

On our example label:

18% DV of Dietary Fiber = GOOD.

  • Protein.

Protein is vital for good health but everyone has different protein needs according to their age, activity levels, gender, kidney function, etc.

If you’re an athlete, for example, you may need to aim for a higher %DV of protein (15% or more).

If you’re not so active, lower %DVs of protein will suffice.

The bottom line is: don’t worry too much about the %DVs of protein. Most of us with modern, urban diets can easily meet our daily protein requirements.

  • Total fat.

Do NOT focus on the %DV of total fats. Why? Because NOT all fats are bad. In fact, some of them are very healthy! Remember this:

      • Unsaturated fats = Good. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats help you balance your cholesterol levels and protect your heart and brain from disease.
      • Saturated fats = Bad. They increase your risk of heart disease, overweight, and diabetes.

So don’t worry if a food has a high %DV of total fats, as long as the %DV of saturated fats is low (5% or less). 

Reminder: healthy eating does NOT mean giving up your favourite foods. It’s all about keeping the balance.

If you eat something high in Saturated Fats, balance it with foods that are low in Saturated Fats at other times of the day 🙂  

4. Total sugars and trans fat

Trans fat and total sugars don’t have %DVs because there is no reference value of how much you should eat per day. 

But it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is this: 

  • Trans fat.

This type of fat is really unhealthy. Its consumption is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. Always prefer foods with ZERO trans fat.

On our example label:

0 g Trans Fat = GOOD.

  • Total sugars.

Total sugars account for two types of sugar:

      • Natural sugars. Sugars naturally present in raw ingredients, like those in fruits or milk.
      • Added sugars. Any sugars artificially added during the manufacturing process.

For food to have a good glycemic score, the amount of natural + added sugars together (total sugars) should NOT exceed 8 g per serving.

On our example label: 

15.5 g Total sugars per serving = BAD.

Beware that honey, coconut sugar, molasses, palm sugar (gula Melaka), maple syrup, and any other so-called “natural sugars” are still ADDED sugars and must be consumed with caution.

If you want to know more details about the added sugars in your food, check the list of ingredients. Keep reading for details.

5. Ingredient list

The Nutrition Facts alone are incomplete without the List of Ingredients. 

So what to check here?

A. Order of appearance. 

International regulations require ingredients to be listed by quantity, from highest to lowest.

This means that the first 3 to 4 ingredients on the list are the main components of the product.

If sweeteners (e.g. honey, syrups, sugars), refined grains (flour), salt, or oils appear on the first spots of the list, the product is NOT healthy. 

B. Nature of the ingredients. 

Always choose products that are minimally processed and have lots of nutritious and natural ingredients.

Avoid products with artificial flavorings, colorants, emulsifiers, or preservatives. If you don’t know what it is, it’s probably artificial.

C. Added sugars. 

Healthy, low-glycemic foods should also have zero refined sugars like brown sugar, cane sugar, glucose syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, or brown rice syrup.

Non-refined sugars like honey, coconut sugar, molasses, fruit concentrates, and maple syrup are still added sugars and shouldn’t appear at the top of the List of Ingredients.

Prefer foods that do NOT have more than one type of sugar – refined or unrefined – on the ingredient list. This is a strategy to push sugars towards the end of the list.

With these points in mind, go ahead and check the ingredients in our example. Can you spot all the red flags? 😉

The bottom line

Now that you know how to read the Nutrition Information label, you can easily tell if a product is healthy and nutritious for you and your family.

Unhealthy products will not only waste your hard-earned money but they’ll also cost you your precious health. Read the labels and spread the word!

Start now. It’s easy and it can spare you many years of health troubles. Share this article with your friends to help them stay healthy too.

Looking for truly healthy food that’s science-based and delicious? Check our Grain Forest recommendations!

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