While reading nutrition facts labels can be difficult, especially if you do not know what to look for, there is help. The Nutrition Facts Label can give you a lot of information but the key is to know how to use it to help you make healthy food choices.
Here is what is important to know about nutrition labels:
• Serving size – This is the food’s recommended serving size. It may include a weight measurement, one cup, for example, or a number of pieces of the food, 12 pretzels, for example. As part of this you should check out servings per container. This number is the suggested number of servings. You should keep in mind that if a food has four servings per container and you eat half of the bag, you would be eating two servings. It is always critical to look at these numbers because you may be eating more than you think!
• Calories – This is the number of calories per serving, remember to refer back to the correct serving size. Calorie needs are based on individual needs and eating too many is part of why you gain weight. The number of calories from fat are also in this section of the label. Nutritional experts recommend that you choose foods with fewer than 30% of calories coming from fat.
• Total fat – This number is the total fat that is found per one serving in grams and in % Daily Value. It is always better to choose foods with less fat. Within this figure is the amount of saturated fat in the food item. This is fat that comes from animal and dairy products and tropical oils; it is measured in grams. A diet that is high in saturated fat is a risk factor for coronary artery disease. You should choose foods with 2 grams or fewer of saturated fat. Nutritional labels may also list monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are unsaturated fats that can help protect your heart; however, all fats should be used in moderation.
• Trans Fats-This type of fat are now listed on every nutrition label. Trans fats are formed by chemically changing the oil called hydrogenation, which then increases product shelf life and flavor. A diet that is high in Trans fat has shown to increase cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease. If a food has the words “partially hydrogenated oil” on the label it then contains Trans fats. It is recommended by the American Heart Association to avoid all Trans fats.
• Cholesterol – This is another form of fat that is measured in milligrams. It is important to keep in mind that too much dietary cholesterol is another risk factor for heart disease. High amounts of cholesterol are found in organ meats, dairy products, shrimp and egg yolks. Everyone should limit intake to 300 milligrams daily. It can be helpful to use foods with 5% or less saturated fats and cholesterol and avoid those with over 20% of the daily value of saturated fats and cholesterol.
• Sodium – This is the nutrient, which most people consider “salt”, that helps regulate blood pressure and fluid balance; it is measured in milligrams. The recommended daily allowance for sodium is 2300 milligrams per day which is not a lot when you consider that one teaspoon of table salt has 2000 milligrams of sodium.
• Other Items – There are many other ingredients whose percentages and amounts might be broken out on the label, depending on the food item. These can include: total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, proteins, vitamins and minerals and percent of daily values.
• Ingredient lists – The ingredient list is another important part of the Nutrition Label. Ingredients in the food item are listed by weight in descending order of predominance. Spices, artificial coloring and flavors are also listed on the ingredient list, typically at the end.
All of these elements are important parts of the label and should be important guides in your food decisions.