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How to Read a Food Label

Food LabelAs we learned last month, examining the ingredient list is the first essential step to proper label reading. Here’s a little recap:

  • Read the ingredients first and ignore all the claims.
  • If the list of ingredients is too long or impossible to pronounce, do not buy.
  • Make sure the first few ingredients are the bulk of the food product.
  • Make sure sugar is not one of the top three ingredients.
  • When reading ingredients, stay away from hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and additives.

Once you have read the ingredients and decided that it is a wholesome product, the next step is to examine the Nutrition Facts. Here is a sample label on a small bag of chips:

1. SERVING SIZE is the product’s recommended serving size. In this bag of chips, one serving is half the bag. Beware that some companies can deceive you by listing an unrealistically small size.

SERVINGS PER CONTAINER are the number of servings that are in the whole package. For example, if you eat this whole bag of chips, then you ate 2 servings. It is always important to look at these numbers because you may be eating more than you think!

2. CALORIES are the amount of calories in the listed serving size. In this bag of chips, there are 260 calories in ½ the bag.

CALORIES FROM FAT are calories that come solely from fat. It’s a good idea to choose foods with less than 30-40% of calories coming from fat.

3. TOTAL FAT is the total fat grams in one serving. There are 13 grams of fat in ½ the bag.

SATURATED FAT comes from animal and dairy products. A diet high in saturated fat is a risk factor for heart disease. It’s a good idea to choose foods with 3 grams or less saturated fat. There are 5 grams of saturated in ½ the bag of chips, which is a little high.

4. TRANS FATS are required on every nutrition label by January 2006. Trans fats, also known as hydrogenated oils, are used to increases product shelf life and flavor. However they are dangerous to your health and it is important to avoid trans fats. Half the bag of chips contains 2 grams of trans fat, which is 2 grams too much.

5. CHOLESTEROL is a form of fat measured in milligrams. Too much dietary cholesterol has been associated with heart disease, however I believe that blood cholesterol is more affected by trans fat, saturated fat and processed foods.

6. SODIUM is a nutrient that helps regulate blood pressure and fluid balance measured in milligrams which most people consider “salt”. High sodium content in a product usually correlates to a high amount of processing. For example, the high level of sodium (660 mg in ½ the bag) in this product would clue me in that the chips are a highly processed food.

7. TOTAL CARBOHYDRATE is the amount of total carbohydrate per serving measured in grams. It is important to moderate the amount of carbohydrates in your meals. Carbohydrates provide essential fuel for our body. However when you eat too many carbohydrates at one sitting, your body secretes a high level of insulin which stores fat. Individual carbohydrate needs vary from one person to another depending on their activity level, weight, and overall health status.

8. DIETARY FIBER is the amount of indigestible bulk from plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, oats, nuts and seeds. Foods high in fiber are shown to be beneficial for weight control, diabetes, high cholesterol and some forms of cancer. Foods with five grams of fiber or more are considered “high fiber” foods.

9. SUGARS are part of the Total Carbohydrate content and are measured in grams. Some products contain natural sugar or added sugar sources. It is important to keep sugar content down in your diet. A good technique is by minimizing the ratio of Sugar grams from the Total Carbohydrate grams.

10. PROTEIN is the amount of total protein in the listed serving size measured in grams. Protein needs are individualized based on height, weight, age and physical activity level. I usually recommend most people get at least 1-2 oz of protein (7-14 grams) for a small meal or snack.

11. VITAMINS AND MINERALS are micronutrients measured in percentages. The goal is to consume 100% of each of these nutrients daily to prevent nutrition related diseases.

12. PERCENT DAILY VALUES shows the amount of each of the nutrients listed above needed daily in a 2000 and a 2500-calorie diet. The Percent Daily Values are listed on the top half of the food label and are based on recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet, not a 2,500 calorie diet. Five percent or less of the % Daily Value is considered low, whereas 20% or more is considered high.

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