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Making Sense of Foods

Reading Food Labels: Nutrition Facts panel

Learning how to read food labels will let you distinguish between healthful products and the ones you'll want to leave on the shelf.

The Nutrition Facts section of the food label includes information on calories, fat, sodium, and other nutrients. If you find it a bit confusing, here are some tips to help you to decipher it.

The Nutrition Facts panel is in block letters and looks like the example on the left.

Start with the Serving Size. Knowing how much of the food is in one "serving" is helpful because the nutrients and calories on the panel correspond to that serving amount. So, for example, if a juice bottle contains two servings, the number of calories (and the amounts of other nutrients) in the whole container is actually twice what is listed on the Nutrition Facts panel.

The number of calories shown is the amount in one serving. Next to the calorie amount is the Calories from Fat or Fat Cal. This will be listed in grams. If you are interested in the percentage of calories from fat, simply divide the number of Calories from Fat by the Calories and multiply by 100. For example, if a food has 150 calories and 75 calories from fat, then that food has 50 percent of its calories from fat—making it a high–fat food.

Generally speaking, the healthiest foods have less than 10 to 15 percent of calories from fat.

The next set of numbers tells you how much Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium is in one serving of the food. These are nutrients to limit or avoid as much as possible, so you'll want to choose foods with lower levels of these. As of January 2006, Nutrition Facts labels should also list the amount of Trans Fat in the product. Avoid foods that contain a measurable amount of trans fat.

Next, look at Total Carbohydrate, Dietary Fiber, Sugars, and Protein. Important items in this group are fiber and sugars. When comparing two different foods, choose the food with the higher amount of fiber and the lower amount of sugar.

The nutrients Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron are listed because many Americans do not consume enough of them. However, these are just a few among many important nutrients. Even though a food may not have 100 percent of all these nutrients, it is not necessarily an unhealthy choice. Foods vary widely in the important nutrients they contain.

Lastly, the Ingredients list tells you what the product is composed of. The ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance by weight.

The % Daily Value indicates what percent of a given nutrient this food provides to meet the Daily Value. Daily Values are levels of nutrients suggested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, for people looking to eat a high–nutrient, low–fat, vegetarian diet, these values are not very helpful. A high % Daily Value does not necessarily mean that a food is healthful.


Reading Food Labels: Nutrient and Health Claims >>