“High Fiber” “100% Natural” “Light”
Food packaging often highlights the nutrient content and health claims of foods, but what does this “label lingo” really mean? What should you look for when you’re trying to select the healthiest option at the store? The Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list tell you most of what you need to know. Learning how to read a nutrition label can make or break your progress when it comes to weight loss.
The Ingredient List
Ingredients are listed in order of their weight in the food, with the most abundant ingredients at the beginning of the list.
Think about the following:
- How long is the ingredient list? A longer list of ingredients can sometimes mean the product is more processed.
- If you are looking for whole grains, a few good examples include whole-wheat products, oats, barley, rye, corn, brown or wild rice.
- What types of fat does the food contain? Does it contain any partially hydrogenated oils? If so, this is not your best choice.
- If the first ingredients in your juice are water and high fructose corn syrup and you see the name of the fruit juice (e.g., grape, orange) later in the list, the product contains more water and sugar than the actual fruit juice.
- Sugar and sweeteners come in many forms and can be listed under different names such as corn syrup, fructose, honey, etc.
This panel gives you more complete nutrition information about the food product.
Serving Size and Servings Per Container
Pay attention to this section—the nutritional information that follows represents one serving. Many times the serving size is smaller and the servings per container are more than you’d expect! For example, what may appear to be a single-serving bottled beverage could actually contain two servings. If you drink the entire bottle, you are getting double the calories, sugars and any other nutrients listed on the food label.
Total Fat and Sodium
Limit these nutrients.
Fat. The type of fat is as important as the total amount of fat in a serving. Look at the amount of saturated fat and trans fat—these types of fats raise blood cholesterol levels. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your daily calories. For example, if you eat 1,500 calories per day, your target for saturated fat is less than 16 grams per day. In addition, it’s recommended that you keep trans fat intake as low as possible.
Sodium. The Dietary Guidelines recommend less than than 2,300 mg of sodium per day and even less (1,500 mg) for persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. Pay particular attention to processed foods, which are known to contribute high amounts of sodium.
Focus on the amount of dietary fiber and sugars listed below Total Carbohydrates.
Fiber. A healthy bread choice has at least 2 grams of fiber per serving; a healthy cereal choice has 3 or more grams of fiber per serving and lists a whole grain as the first ingredient.
Sugars. The sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label include naturally occurring sugars like those in fruit and milk as well as those sugars added to a product. Check the ingredients list for specifics on added sugars. Examples of ones that you might see listed include corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, sucrose (table sugar), maltose, dextrose, honey and maple syrup. Limit added sugars; most of your sugar should come from fruit and low- fat and non-fat dairy products
Percent Daily Values (%DV)
These values, provided for most of the listed nutrients, tell the percent of the recommended daily intake—based on a 2,000 calorie diet—in one serving. This information gives you an idea if a food has a high (20% DV or more) or low (5% DV or less) amount of a nutrient. This is helpful when you want to choose foods with higher amounts of beneficial nutrients such as fiber, calcium and vitamin C or select foods with lower amounts of less healthy nutrients such saturated fat and sodium.
Armed with this information about the Nutrition Facts panel, take a look at the examples on the following pages and see what you can learn from these labels.
Sample # 1: Snack/Granola Bars
Serving Size: 2 bars (42 g)
Servings Per Container: 6
What do the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list tell us?
- This label shows nutrition facts for one bar or two.
- Two bars contain 7 grams of total fat with 1 gram of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat. Eating two bars would not count as low-fat, but they are a good source of heart-healthy fat.
- Even though the first ingredient is whole-grain rolled oats, each bar has only one gram of fiber.
Sample # 2: Yogurt (light)
Serving Size: 1 container
What do the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list tell us?
- One container of this yogurt product has no fat
- The 15 grams of sugar includes naturally occurring sugar (lactose) found in dairy foods. Regular versions of this yogurt have almost twice as much sugar per serving.
- What type of added sugar is used? (high fructose corn syrup and aspartame—a sugar substitute)
- This product is a good source of Calcium and Vitamin D.
Sample # 3: Chicken Chili
Serving Size: 1 cup (247g)
Servings Per Container: about 2
What do the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list tell us?
- This chili has 810 mg of sodium, about one third of your day’s target intake. (Notice there are 2 servings per container; if you eat the whole container (2 cups), your sodium intake jumps to 1,620 mg).
- It is a good source of fiber (6 grams), 24% of the Daily Value.
- This product is a good source of protein (19g).
- The ingredients list is fairly short and contains items that are easy to understand (versus including many additives/preservatives).
Here are examples of nutrition and health claims you’re likely to see on food packaging and what they really mean:
- High fiber: 5 grams or more of fiber per serving
- Light (fat): 50 percent or less of the fat than in the comparison food (original product). For example: “50% less fat than our original cheese”
- Light (calories): 1/3 fewer calories than the comparison food (original product)
- Low sodium: 140 mg or less of sodium per serving
- Trans fat free: less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving (but remember, the FDA lets food manufacturers claim that products have zero grams of trans fats as long as they have less than half a gram per serving. Be aware of products that list hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats, in their ingredients)
- Reduced-fat: 25 percent less fat than the original product
- Low-fat: 3 grams or less fat per serving
The next time you go food shopping, read the labels and packaging information carefully to help you make the best choices for your good health.
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