How To Read Those Nutrition Information Labels When You're Food Shopping

By Mackie Shilstone

Many of you, having learned the hazards of being unhealthy and overweight, want to eat healthier and lose those excess pounds. You're determined to pick out only the best foods and drinks to help you achieve those goals. However, when you go shopping for those products, you're confused when you try to read the labels. How do you know what's best for you and what's not? Let me offer some helpful guidelines.

The labels of all pre-packaged foods contain two lists that are required by the federal government. Manufacturers must provide a list of ingredients and a panel of "Nutrition Facts." Ingredients are what is contained in or added to the particular food item in question. Any food made with more than one ingredient is required to tell the consumer exactly what is in the package, can, jar or bottle. The ingredients list must include any artificial chemicals, colors, flavor enhancers (artificial sweeteners, etc.), preservatives or other additives. Items in ingredients lists are listed in descending order by weight.

Based on the information contained in these two lists you can usually make an informed decision as to whether or not this is a product that you want to consume, but only if you know how to interpret the data. This requires some explanation, which I will give below.

The Nutrition Facts panel starts out by specifying the "serving size" of the particular food item and the number of servings in each container, package, bottle, etc. Then it lists the number of calories and calories from fat contained in the food item. The list goes on to specify -- by grams or milligrams -- total fat content and how much of that total fat is saturated fat; plus cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates (with dietary fiber and sugar as sub-contents), protein, vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, potassium or others.

The Nutrition Facts panel also specifies what percent of daily value (recommended daily allowance or RDA) these components are. The percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, which is about average for most healthy individuals. Your RDA may be higher or lower, depending on your calorie needs. A licensed nutritionist can determine those calorie needs for you.

At the bottom of most Nutrition Facts lists are charts showing how many grams or milligrams of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber and other minerals are recommended daily by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for both 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diets.

Keep in mind that the Nutrition Facts panel doesn't list every vitamin, mineral or other component of the food item. It only shows the ones determined by the USDA to be the most important in their Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the generally accepted Food Guide Pyramid. Keep in mind, also, that "serving size" is usually less than what most people actually eat.

So, if one serving is equal to one cup and you consumed two cups, you consumed twice the number of calories and other nutrients listed on the label. So, the general rule is, if you're trying to lose weight, try to avoid or strictly regulate your intake of foods that are high in calories, especially calories from saturated fat. Using the nutrition facts chart, you can roughly determine what percent of your daily value these food items contain in the key categories listed. You should eat them with other foods that add up to 100% of your daily value or as close as possible to it. It takes a little thought and a little math but you can get used to it.

Also on the actual food labels, themselves, you will see dozens of words and phrases describing the content. These words include "low (or reduced) fat," "no added sugar," "fortified," "lean (or extra lean)," "high in . . .," "lite," and other such designations. While these terms may appear to be self-explanatory, they have to be examined in their context and in comparison to each other. There are basic general standards and federal guidelines that have to be met in order for certain claims to be made.

"Free" generally means a quantity of something so small that it probably won't have an effect on your body. "Calorie free," "fat free" or "sodium free" doesn't mean there are no calories, fats or sodium in the product; it just means the amount is too minuscule to have much of an effect on you. If the product says "low calorie," "low fat, "low cholesterol" or something similar, it means that there are trace amounts of these ingredients present but not an inordinate amount. Not enough to worry about.

"Reduced" is a term used to describe food with at least 25% fewer calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol or sodium than a comparable food. Other terms that describe the same thing are "fewer," "lower in," less" or " _____ % reduced (depending on what number that percent represents).

The term "high" indicates an amount that is 20% or more of the daily value for a nutrient. For example, a label might say "high in vitamin C" or "high in calcium" or something similar. Other comparable terms are "excellent source of . . ." and "rich in . . . " In order to make these claims, manufacturers of the products have to be able to back them with documented evidence, if called upon to do so.

"More" is an amount that is 10% or more of the daily value. For example, "more fiber" or "more iron." Other terms are "enriched," "fortified" or "added." The latter mean just that: vitamins or other nutrients are added to products that don't normally contain them.

"Light" is a food that has one-third fewer calories or 50% less fat than the traditional version of the same food. A "low-calorie" or "low-fat food" with 50% less sodium might also be called light or lite (to use the vernacular spelling).

"Healthy" is generally understood to be a food that is low in fat and saturated fat. It must contain 480 milligrams or less sodium per serving, and at least 10% of the daily value of vitamins C and A, calcium, iron, protein and fiber.

For packaged seafood or game, or cooked meat or cooked poultry to be called "lean," it must contain less than 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol, based on a 3-ounce serving. To be designated "extra lean," a food item must be less than five grams total fat, two grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 3-ounce serving.

These are some basic guidelines you can go by when you’re out shopping and comparing food labels. Of course, each person and their needs are different, depending on such factors as their age, weight, body mass index, and the general state of their health. A licensed nutritionist can advise you on these matters and devise a nutrition program that works best for you. Consult your doctor, as well, to make sure these foods are right for you.

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