How to Read a Food Package Label
Now that you can wisely evaluate the claims on the front of the package, here is the information you need to interpret the large and small print on the sides and back of the package. “Nutrition Facts” is one of the most useful parts of the food label. This is where you can find out exactly how much fat, protein, and fiber the food contains. This breakdown of the nutritional content of the food is prepared by the food manufacturer’s nutritional department, and the information listed there is what it says: factual. What facts must be included in this box and the way they are presented is regulated by law. The box follows the same format wherever it appears, making it easy to compare foods. While it’s not perfect, the “Nutrition Facts” box is a big improvement on the piecemeal nutritional information that used to be included on food packaging. (The print is bigger, too.) Once you learn how to read the information in this box and, more importantly, interpret it, you can make informed choices about what you’re eating. Each line of the Nutrition Facts box gives you information you can use. If you take the information on each line and then read between the lines, you can decide how this fits into your eating plan. Let’s dissect a sample “Nutrition Facts” label not only to learn what each listing means but also to read between the lines for hidden nutrition facts.
This line reflects the amount that the average person eats at one helping. Serving size is expressed in kitchen terms – cups, spoons, slices, and also in grams. Serving size is set by the F.D.A., not by the manufacturer, for all similar products (e.g., all yogurts) so you can make comparisons without having to do a lot of math. But be aware that your average serving may be more or less than this amount.
SERVINGS PER PACKAGE
The next line tells you how many servings the package contains, enabling you to compare similar products on the basis of cost per serving. Multiply this number by the serving size and it should equal, or come close to, the total volume of the package.
This line tells you the number of calories per serving. Remember to adjust this (and other nutrient amounts, too) if your idea of a serving size is different from that stated on the package. If a half-cup serving has 50 calories, but you usually eat a one-cup serving, you’ll be getting 100 calories. When shopping, compare the nutrient values to the total calories of the same size serving of each food. For example, a cereal that contains four grams of protein in a 100 calorie serving would be more nutritious than a cereal listing two grams per 100 calories. Also, a food listing four grams of protein in 100 calories would be less nutrient-dense than one listing three grams of protein in a 50 calorie serving of the same volume.
CALORIES FROM FAT
This line tells you how many calories in each serving are from fat. Use this and the “Total Fat” line below to decide if the food fits your goals for fat consumption. If this food gets a lot of its calories from fat, you’ll want to eat it sparingly or not at all.
PERCENT DAILY VALUE (DV)
This section tells you what percentage of the total recommended daily amount of each nutrient (fats, carbs, proteins, major vitamins, and minerals) is in each serving, based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. If you eat more or less than 2,000 calories, adjust this value proportionally. The average woman (non-pregnant and no-lactating) needs about 2,000 calories per day. The average man needs around 2,500 to 2,800. An athlete may burn between 3,000 to 4,000 per day. These daily values are for adults and children four years of age or over. These values cannot be applied to infants or children under four.
This line tells you how many grams of fat is in one serving and what percent this is of the recommended daily value (DV). For example, “Total Fat 1 gram, 2 %” means that one serving would contain one gram of fat and two percent of the total recommended daily intake of fat. Even the factory fats (“hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated”) must legally be listed in the total fat.
This subheading under “Total Fat” tells you how much of the fat in each serving is saturated fat and what percent this is of your daily recommended value (DV). Current nutritional recommendations are that less than one-third of the fat in your diet (less than 8% of your total daily calories) should come from saturated fat.
This line tells you how many milligrams of cholesterol and what percent this is of the recommended daily value.
Reading between the lines: Even though the label says “no cholesterol,” what it doesn’t tell you is the amount of cholesterol-raising fats (“partially hydrogenated”) that are in each serving. Hydrogenated fats can be as hazardous to your health – or more so — than saturated fat or cholesterol. So, as a novice food-label detective, if you look at the fine print in the ingredients list and see, for example, “partially hydrogenated soybean oil,” then assume that “trans fatty acids” is missing from the fat facts. A consumer has a right to know not only the amount of fat, but also the breakdown of nutritious and unnutritious fats. A more factual and truthful label would break the total fat into monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and trans fatty acids. Sometime during the years 2000 to 2001 the FDA is expected to require such labeling.
This line refers to “salt.” The DV for sodium is less than 2,400 mg. a day.
The recommended daily value for potassium is 3,500 mg. a day.
Total carbohydrate: Tells you how many grams of carbohydrates are in each serving and the percentage of the Daily Value this represents. This number includes starches, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, added sugar sweeteners, and non-digestible additives. The following three carbohydrates all add up to the total carbohydrate value.
Dietary fiber: This figure represents the number of grams of fiber in each serving.
Sugars: This figure represents the number of grams of added sweeteners, which may appear in the ingredients list as: sugar, corn syrup, honey, brown sugar, and so on.
Other carbohydrates: This line reveals the number of grams of complex carbohydrates, not including fiber, but including non-digestible additives, such as stabilizers and thickening agents. Theoretically, this number should reflect the amount of the more nutritious sugars, that is the ones naturally present in the food.
Reading between the lines. As a general guide, the greater the discrepancy between “total carbohydrates” and “sugar,” on the label, the more nutritious carbohydrates the food contains. This means that the package contains more of the food’s natural sugars than added sugars. The closer the number of grams of “sugar” is to the “total carbohydrates” in each serving, the closer the food gets to the junk quality (sort of like junk bonds — they are a risky investment). The “total carbs” minus the “sugar” value is particularly helpful in comparing the nutritional value of cereals. For example, a serving of regular All-Bran contains 24 grams of total carbohydrates and 6 grams of sugars, resulting in 18 grams of potentially healthy carbohydrates. A serving of Fruit Loops, on the other hand, contains 28 grams of total carbohydrates, 15 grams of which are sugars – over 50 percent of the total carbohydrates in Fruit Loops are added sweeteners, versus 25 percent in All-Bran.
When comparing juice labels, you will notice that even in “100 percent juice” the total carb and the sugar values are the same, since juice is nearly all natural sugar.
When you’re buying cereal, bread, or crackers, you are looking for complex carbohydrates without a lot of added sugar. There is no line in the “Nutrition Facts” listing for complex carbohydrates, but you can get a rough idea of the amount of healthy carbs in a food by comparing total carbohydrates with sugars. The greater the difference between the two, the more grams of complex carbohydrates in the food.
This line tells you how many grams of protein are in each serving. You will notice that the percent DV is missing from the protein label because protein insufficiency is not generally thought to be a problem. The average daily protein requirement for most people would be between 50 and 75 grams a day. So, a serving that contains three grams of protein would give you around four to six percent of the DV for protein.
VITAMINS AND MINERALS
This list includes the percentage of the recommended daily allowance for vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron in each serving. The food may provide significant amounts of other vitamins and minerals, which may also be listed, though not required by law.
Show Me the Freshness
Become accustomed to looking for and reading the “use by” date on packages, especially on perishables, such as prewashed salad makings, meat and poultry, and dairy products. Check “on sale” items carefully.
The ingredients list tells you, usually in fine print, what ingredients the food contains. These are listed in order, starting with the ingredient found in the largest amount, by weight, and progressing to the ingredient present in the smallest amount. The ingredients list may be the most important information on the box to someone with food allergies or to a parent wary of the effect of food colors or preservatives on a child’s behavior. Here you can find out if a food contains eggs, soy, milk, corn, or whatever you must avoid eating. It’s important, even critical, to know the lingo. Casein, caseinate, lactalbumin, whey or whey solids are all derived from cow’s milk, though their names don’t reveal this. Albumin comes from eggs. Dextrose and glucose may originate in corn. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein starts with soybeans, and some of the products used to thicken or stabilize food texture, such as acacia gum, are legume products.
Be Wary of Desserts Labeled “Low-fat.”
The manufacturer often compensates for the fat by adding more sugar. “Low-fat” is not the same as “low-calorie.”
Pay attention to where and how various kinds of sugar are included on the ingredients list. Use your good sense. Ketchup, for example, should contain mainly tomatoes. Tomatoes, not sugar, should be first on the ingredient list. A cereal in which sugar is the first, second, or third ingredient, would certainly be less nutritious than one in which two or three types of grains are listed before the sugar.
From time to time it’s good to check the ingredients list, even of foods you buy regularly. Manufacturers’ recipes change, depending on all kinds of factors. Some changes may make the food less acceptable to you than it once was. The flavor advertised as “better than ever” may come from more sugar. Or, the oil in a salad dressing that once was corn oil may now be less nutritious cottonseed oil (which is why they use “and/or” – so they don’t have to change the label).
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