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Nutrition label know-how

Author: Diana Price

When was the last time you checked the nutrition label on a package of food? And if you did, did the information listed there influence your choice to purchase or eat that food? For many of us, though we’re aware of the nutrition label, it’s not always clear what we should be looking for or how we should use the information provided. If you aren’t regularly checking the nutrition label, it might be time to start, as the information provided can help you make good choices and maintain a healthy diet.

Danielle Bach, MS, RD, CSO, dietitian at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Goodyear, Arizona, encourages consumers to view the label as a tool that can provide valuable data and help steer you in the right direction. “Nutrition food labels can empower individuals to make informed decisions when purchasing food or making food selections,” she says.

Find the facts

As a first step in using the nutrition facts chart to your advantage, it’s important to know what all the elements on the label mean. Here’s a quick rundown of the major elements of the chart:

  • Serving size and servings per container. This number will tell you how much of the product is considered a serving and how many servings are in the container. All the other information on the label is based on this single serving size.
  • Calories. A calorie measures how much energy a food provides. (Remember, this number represents the number of calories in a single serving.)
  • Calories from fat. This refers to the number of calories in a single serving that come from fat. General recommendations encourage consumers to limit total calories from fat to 20 to 30 percent of their total calorie intake.
  • Percent of daily value. This number indicates what percentage of the daily recommended total is included in the serving size. Five percent or less of daily value is considered low; 20 percent or more is high.
  • Total fat (includes saturated fat and trans fat). General recommendations are to limit saturated fat to fewer than 20 grams (g) per day and to avoid trans fats entirely if possible.
  • Cholesterol. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found in the bloodstream and in all the cells of the body. Too much cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 200 to 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per day.
  • Sodium. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but we need only a little bit in our diet. Aim for 2,400 mg or less per day. (Individuals with high blood pressure are advised to consume less than 1,500 mg per day.)
  • Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are macronutrients that compose a large part of our diet and include sugars, starches, and fibers. Food labels list two components of carbohydrates that are important:
    • Dietary fiber. The American Dietetic Association recommends 25 to 35 g of fiber per day. Foods that contain 5 g or more per serving are considered high-fiber.
    • Sugars. Added sugars are high in calories and low in value. Look for foods that have a low sugar count.
  • Protein. Protein should constitute about 15 to 25 percent of the diet. Because our protein needs vary, food labels report protein in grams but do not apply a percentage of daily value to protein.
  • Vitamins and minerals. The food label lists the percentage of daily value for vitamin A, calcium, vitamin C, and iron. (This is the minimum; some labels include other nutrients.)
  • Ingredients list. The ingredients list appears directly below the chart. It’s an important aspect of the label because it includes all ingredients in the product.

Evaluate the information

With a basic understanding of the label’s elements, the next step is to get a sense of how you can use that information to make good choices. According to Bach, evaluating the chart based on a few key components can simplify the process.

Though each person will approach the chart with different dietary needs and considerations, Bach says that a good place to start is the serving size. Identifying the size of each serving and the number of servings in the container is key. “Sometimes people are surprised to learn that the information on the nutrition label is not an indication of what’s in the entire package or container; there could be many portions per package or container,” Bach says. “Once consumers are informed of this common assumption, it becomes easier to work around this: if you eat an entire package of something and the label says there are three servings per package, you know that you will have to multiply everything on the label by three.”

After evaluating the serving size, Bach recommends noting the percentage of daily value of each nutrient listed. “Anything listed as 20 percent is a high source of your daily value; anything listed as 5 percent or less is a low source; and anything in between is a moderate amount of your daily value,” Bach says. “This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you are looking at. If it’s 20 percent of your daily value for fiber, vitamins, minerals, or protein, for example, this is desirable. If it’s 20 percent of your daily value for fat calories, this is not desirable.” Also important to keep in mind, she says, is that the nutrition labels are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. If your goal is to consume less than 2,000 calories, the percentage of daily values will be different for you.

Bach also encourages a careful look at the ingredients list, which generally appears beneath the nutrition facts chart and is as important as the numbers listed on the chart itself. Bach says that noting which ingredients are included can help consumers avoid food allergies and intolerances, and it will provide a sense of which ingredients are most prominent.

“Food ingredients are listed in order of the greatest amount to the least amount in the product,” she says, “so if sugar is listed near the top, you know that there is a lot of added sugar in the product.”

Become a savvy shopper

So now you know how to read a nutrition label. What next? Put that valuable information to use by choosing healthy foods. As a general rule, Bach says, use your knowledge of the label to look for foods that are higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and lower in calories, fat, and sugar. When looking at the ingredients list, she says, “try to avoid products that have many unrecognizable ingredients listed, as this is generally a more processed food—and use caution with food items that have more than 10 to 15 ingredients, as these also tend to be more processed.”

Finally, keep in mind that just because a package may boldly proclaim a food’s benefits on the front, you still need to check the label. “Food companies are trying to make a profit, so they make their packaging appear as appealing as they possibly can,” Bach says. “When you see a package that claims half the amount of sodium or sugar than before, you still have to check the facts: just because it has 50 percent less does not mean it’s a low source of salt or sugar or is considered healthy; it just means it’s lower than before.”

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