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Food Labels

Reading food labels will help you know if a food is a healthy choice. The food label is a reliable source of valuable nutrition information. Reading and comparing food labels will help you limit nutrients that you want to cut back on and increase nutrients that are good for you. It will also help you avoid ingredients that you may be sensitive to.

What do terms such as fortified and low-fat mean?

Food packages often have labels that point out a nutritional value, such as "low in fat and cholesterol" or "fortified with iron." By law, companies can use these terms only if the food meets specific requirements. Here are the requirements for these terms:

  • Fat-free means the food has less than a half gram of fat per serving.
  • Low-fat means less than 3 grams (g) of fat per serving.
  • Cholesterol free means less than 2 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per serving.
  • Low cholesterol means less than 20 mg of cholesterol and 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Low sodium means less than 140 mg of salt per serving.
  • Low calorie means less than 40 calories per serving.
  • Sugar-free means less than a half gram of sugar per serving.
  • Fortified means the food provides more than 10% of the daily requirement for the nutrient the food is fortified with.
  • High or rich means the food contains 20% or more of the daily value for a specific nutrient. (See the section on using the nutrition label for more about the daily value.)

What are functional foods?

Functional foods are foods, or substances in foods, that may provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. It is well known that some foods provide specific health benefits. Examples include soluble fiber, which decreases cholesterol, and calcium-rich foods, such as dairy, which help prevent bone loss. Functional benefits of many traditional foods are still being discovered, and new food products are being developed that contain beneficial ingredients. For example, some margarines are being made with plant stanols and sterols, which have been shown to decrease cholesterol levels.

Sometimes you will see a health claim made on a package, such as "Diets low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease." These claims are a way of letting you know about the additional health benefits of functional foods. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved claims for 12 diet and health relationships. These approved claims are supported by extensive research. Recently the FDA has also made it possible for food labels to make qualified health claims based on very strong, but not absolutely proven relationships between some foods and health. For example, foods that are high in potassium and low in sodium and saturated fat may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.

How do I read the ingredients list?

Food packages should list the ingredients somewhere on the package. The ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. They include any nutrients, color additives, preservatives, fats, or sugars that have been added. This is helpful information if you have allergies and can't eat some foods or additives.

How do I use the Nutrition Facts label?

Almost all foods in grocery stores have the government-required Nutrition Facts label, which can be found on the side or back of the package. (Very small packages, foods made in the store, and foods made by small manufacturers do not have to include this label.) The Nutrition Facts label helps you make healthy choices for your diet. It can also help you compare one brand of food with another.

Most of the information on the Nutrition Facts label is based on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet. The recommended daily calories for you may be higher or lower, depending on your age, gender, and how active you are. For example, inactive or older people usually burn just 1600 calories a day. Active people and teenagers burn up to 2800 calories or more a day. Keep this in mind when you read the label. You may need more or less of certain nutrients than the package label shows. The footnote at the bottom of the label shows the number of total grams of certain nutrients you need for a 2000-calorie-a-day diet and sometimes also for a 2500-calorie-a- day diet.

Serving Size: At the top of the nutrition label is the serving size and number of servings in the food package. The serving size is usually less than most people eat. If you eat 2 servings, you will get twice as many calories and twice the daily values listed on the nutrition label. If you are comparing 2 foods side by side, check to see if the serving sizes are the same.

Calories: The number of calories per serving is listed after the serving size information. Calories are the measure of how much energy you get from a serving of a food. Many Americans take in more calories than they use for energy. And they often get their calories from foods that have a lot of calories and but not much nutrition. The calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight. A general guide to calories is 40 calories in a serving is low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 calories or more is high. This guide, again, is based on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet.

Calories from Fat: The label lists the number of calories that come from fat in a serving of the food. The general rule is that less than a third of your daily calories should come from fat. If the food has 200 calories and 100 calories are from fat, the food is high in fat.

% Daily Value (%DV): The food label also shows the percentage of the recommended daily amounts of a nutrient you will get from 1 serving. A general rule of thumb for % DV is: Less than 5% is low and over 20% is high. It is a good idea to read the labels and choose foods that are low in the following nutrients:

  • Fat: The label lists the total amount of fat (in grams) in 1 serving. There are different types of fats. Saturated fats and trans fats are bad for you because they raise your cholesterol level. They are often found in foods such as butter, margarine, cheese, cookies, salty snack foods, and whole-milk dairy products. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, found in vegetables, soybeans, nuts, seeds and fish, are healthy in moderation. All fats are high in calories.
  • Cholesterol: Too much cholesterol can lead to heart disease and stroke. Try to eat less than 300 mg each day.
  • Sodium: Most of the sodium (salt) in your diet is hidden inside foods rather than in the salt you add at the table. Try to eat less than 2300 mg each day.

You will notice that some of the nutrients (sugar, protein and trans fat) do not have a % DV. In such cases, you can compare the amounts of these nutrients with the amounts in other similar products to see which is the healthiest. For sugar and trans fat, choose the product with the lowest amount.

The nutrition label also lists other important nutrients.

  • Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates help give you energy. They are found in bread, pasta, potatoes, fruits, and vegetables. This measure is especially useful to people with diabetes or to others watching the amount of carbohydrates in their diet. There are different types of carbohydrates, including dietary fibers, sugars, and starches.
    • Sugars: Sugar occurs naturally in many foods, such as fruits. It is also added to many foods (such as cookies and snacks). Check the ingredients label for sugar content. Snack foods are often high in sugar content.
    • Fiber: Dietary fiber is listed as part of the total carbohydrate. Fiber provides very few or no calories, but it is an important part of a healthy diet. Eating fiber can help lower your risk of heart disease, keep your bowel movements regular, and lower your cholesterol level. Good sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, peas, and beans. Try to eat at least 20 g to 35 g of fiber per day.
  • Protein: Protein helps build muscle. It is found in meat, nuts, eggs, dairy products, fish, and dry beans. Choose lean cuts of meat and nonfat or low-fat dairy products to get protein without a lot of saturated fat. Your body cannot store protein the way that it can store fat, but most Americans have no problem getting enough protein from the food they eat each day. Eating too much protein can cause health problems for some people. Make sure to eat protein as a part of a well-balanced diet every day along with other nutrients.
  • Vitamins and Minerals: Vitamins and minerals are a very important part of a healthy diet. Vitamin A helps your eyesight and skin. Vitamin C helps you fight infections and heal wounds. Calcium is important for building bones and teeth. Iron helps your red blood cells carry oxygen. The food label lists the percentage of the recommended daily amounts of these nutrients that you will get from 1 serving. Other nutrients may also be listed. For most people, the goal is to reach 100% for each vitamin and mineral every day. For example, if an orange juice label says that 1 serving has 80% of the DV for Vitamin C, then you need 20% more to fulfill your Vitamin C need for the day. It is important to remember that in some cases you may need more than 100% of some nutrients. For example, teens need 1300 mg of calcium a day, which means they need 130% of the DV.

Eating a variety of foods everyday is the key to good health. In today's world where frozen dinners and packaged foods are commonplace, food labels can go a long way in helping you compare similar foods and make the healthiest choices.

Developed by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-11-27
Last reviewed: 2005-08-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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