Understanding Food Labels

Read any good food product labels lately? The information they offer can help you make improved food choices, if you know how to use it.

Grab an item from your pantry and look at its Nutrition Facts label. It tells you the item’s serving size, calorie amount, nutrition content, percent daily values and other useful information.

Begin with the serving size. All of the values listed are for that particular portion. If you eat half the suggested amount, cut the nutrition data in half. If you eat double the amount, double the values. Be sure to note the serving sizes whenever you compare different brands.

The categories in bold type represent the main components of the food: calories, total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate and protein. Below that are additional details. For example, if your food item contains 17 grams of total carbohydrate, you can find out how many are from fiber or sugars. If you count carbohydrates and want a more accurate assessment of your food choice, deduct the number of grams of fiber if it is greater than 5, and subtract half of the sugar alcohol grams that may be listed.

In addition to the major nutrients, the label must provide information about saturated fat, cholesterol, fiber, sugar, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.

Percent Daily Value

The percent daily value tells you how a single serving of this item fits into a typical 2,000-calorie meal plan. If you eat more or less than 2,000 calories, adjust these amounts to match your intake. The daily value can help you decide if an item contains a significant amount of a nutrient that you need.

Trans Fats

Trans fats and saturated fats raise bad cholesterol levels (LDL), which increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease, a leading cause of death in the United States. Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils to make products such as vegetable shortening and certain brands of margarine. If you eat reduced-fat products in place of higher fat ones, you can help achieve or maintain a healthy weight and lower your risk of heart disease.

Nutritional Claims

Foods manufacturers frequently print nutritional claims on their product labels. Here are some typical claims and their meanings:

Calorie free: Less than 5 calories per serving
Cholesterol free: Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving
Fat free: Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving
Sugar free: Less than 1.2 grams of sugar per serving
Sodium free: Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving

Be careful choosing foods based on these claims. Low-sugar items may be high in fat. Low-fat products may be high in sugar, and low-fat and low-sugar foods may not be lower in calories.

If you read carefully and keep in mind the guidelines covered in this article, the information available on food product labels can help you become a wiser consumer and a health advocate for yourself and your family.

Read any good labels lately? We hope so!

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