Monday, January 11, 2010

How to Read a Nutrition Label

At the start of the New Year many of us make plans to lose the extra pounds from indulging in our favorite holiday foods.

Even if you don’t count calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, or anything else, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to the Nutrition Facts label on packaging. If you have a hard time making heads or tails of food labels, take this cheat sheet with you the next time you go to the grocery store.

Understanding the labels will ensure that you are getting enough daily nutrients, which will help you reach your health and weight-loss goals.

Serving Size and Servings per Container
This is the first thing to look at when you are scanning a Nutrition Facts panel. Serving sizes are standardized by product type to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount (for example, number of grams). It’s important to be aware of how many servings there are in a package. Many products that look like they contain one serving actually contain more than that in a single package.

Calories and Calories From Fat
Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of the product. Even if you don't count calories you should be aware of them. It’s also useful to see how many of those calories come from fat. If it’s more than half, you should check how much is from saturated or trans fats, which you’ll find farther down on the label (see Total Fat below).

% Daily Value
On the right side of the panel is a column that lists % Daily Value (DV) for each nutrient based on 2,000 calories a day. As the label also points out, your recommended DV needs to be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

Total Fat
This section is broken down into saturated and trans fat content. Manufacturers are not required to list unsaturated fats; however, they are included in the total fat calculations. Avoid products with 20 percent or more of the daily recommended value of saturated fat, as well as those that contain trans fats. Be aware that a label can say 0% trans fats if it contains less than 0.5 gram per serving — so be sure to check for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (which indicate the presence of these bad fats) in the ingredients list if you are concerned.

Cholesterol and Sodium
You should discuss your situation with your own physician, particularly if you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure and are salt-sensitive.

Total Carbohydrate (Dietary Fiber, Sugars)
Total carbohydrate is the heading that lists total grams of dietary fiber and sugars, with the subcategories of dietary fiber and sugar following. Getting plenty of fiber is very important (25 to 30 grams daily is optimal), so pay close attention to this section of the label. When choosing whole-grain breads, for example, select those that contain at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. When it comes to sugars, be aware that this number represents the sum of sugars that occur naturally in foods, like lactose and glucose, as well as added sugars (corn syrup, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and honey, to name a few). Take a peek at the ingredients list to check for these added sugars — and when possible avoid products made with them.

Vitamins and Minerals
Manufacturers are required to list the percentage of the DV of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron supplied by a serving of food. Listing other vitamins and minerals is voluntary, unless a claim is made about the nutrient or they are added to supplement the foods (as in breakfast cereals that supply 100% of your daily need for various vitamins and minerals). If a food supplies less than 2 percent of the DV for the required nutrients, the value does not have to be listed.

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