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Understanding Food
Labels Prevents Disease

The food label, also called the Nutrition Facts Panel, can often be confusing on first glance. The purpose of the food label is to help you make healthy choices so you can lose weight and still eat the foods you enjoy. If you get in the habit of reading and understanding food labels, you are on your way to a healthy diet and good foundation in preventing disease.

Now let's dissect the wording and numbers on the label. The first thing to look at is Calories. Many people are surprised to see that many of their favorite foods have a lot more calories then they thought. Once you locate the number of calories, you should look at the number of servings per container. If you plan to consume the whole package, multiply the calories by the number of servings. Serving sizes are typically regulated so you should be able to compare foods side by side. For example, all ice creams have the serving size of ½ cup. If you eat a whole cup, you are eating 2 servings of ice cream.

The food on the label below has 250 calories and 2 servings, so if you consume the whole package, you have 500 calories: (250 calories x 2 servings). Juices and sodas almost always have more then 1 serving per container. Make sure to multiply the calories by the number of servings by container to get the total number of calories you are consuming. Many serving sizes are smaller then the amounts you consume so you must look carefully at the number of servings.

Now let's take a look at the fat. The number next to the word "fat" tells you how may grams of fat there are in one serving of this food. The food in the above example has 12 grams of fat. The number to the right of that is called the % daily value. The % daily value for fat is the maximum amount of fat you should consume for the entire day. This particular food has 18% of the fat you need for the entire day, if you eat one serving. If you eat 2 servings, this food has 36% (18% x 2 servings) of the fat you need for the entire day. If you consume the whole box, you get about 1/3 of all the fat you need for the day. If you read all your labels and know all the other foods you consume on a daily basis, you can effectively calculate your daily calorie consumption and daily energy requirements.

All this information is based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie per day diet. The information at the bottom of the label (i.e. in the footnote) gives general recommendations for the population. You may need more or less calories depending on your size, daily physical activity and even on certain medications which may also influence your calorie intake.

A few other points to consider on the food label are vitamins and minerals. According on federal regulations, there are only a few vitamins and minerals that are required to be listed. Although there may be a plethora of beneficial vitamins and minerals in many foods, the only ones required to be listed are vitamins A and C along with the minerals sodium, calcium and iron. For example, the mineral potassium in the above example is listed but not required.

Getting in the habit of reading food labels increases your nutrition I.Q. and keeps you disciplined on your calorie intake. Some food companies try to make their foods look healthier by adding unnecessary wording to their food labels. Many labels have claims such as low-fat or high in Vitamin A, but by understanding the interpretation of food labels, you can better assess the validity of these claims for your dietary needs. Don't be fooled by pretty packaging or extra wording. Know how to read the basic label and you are on your way to better health and preventing disease.

Shari Portnoy, MPH, RD, LD/N is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. She holds degrees in both Nutrition and Public Health and has completed the U.S. Food Laws course at the Michigan State University Institute of Food Laws. She has been a featured speaker at the American Culinary Federation National Convention and a board member of the American Dietetic Association.


Reference Source 167
February 2008


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