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Reading food labels

About food labels

All packaged foods you buy must have a Nutrition Facts label. These labels give you nutrition information about the food. Knowing how to read these labels can help you choose healthy foods. Look for the Nutrition Facts label on the side or back of the food package or container.

Serving size

A serving size tells you how much of the food makes up one serving. Always check this first. Right below this, the label tells you how many servings are in the whole package. Many packages contain more than one serving.

The rest of the label tells you how much of the following is in each serving:

  • Calories
  • Fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium (the main ingredient in salt)
  • Carbohydrate
  • Protein

Except for calories, these amounts are given in grams (g) or milligrams (mg). Some labels also list vitamins and other minerals such as calcium that are in the food.

Figure out how many servings of the food you normally eat. You may notice that the amount you eat is actually two or more servings. That means you are eating two or more times the amount of the calories, fats, and other items listed on the label as the "per serving" amount.

Calories

Calorie information tells you the number of calories in one serving. Remember, if you eat more than one serving you are eating more calories.

The % daily value

The % Daily Value (Percent Daily Value or %DV) is found on the right side of the label.

Experts have advised how many calories and how much fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sodium, and fiber you should eat each day. For each of these items, the % Daily Value tells you how much of that total amount is in one serving.

  • A low % Daily Value is 5% or less. Choose foods that have a low % Daily Value for cholesterol, sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat.
  • A high % Daily Value is 20% or more. Choose foods that have a high % Daily Value for fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, and calcium.

The % Daily Value is based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories. Your % Daily Value may be different if you are on a low-calorie diet. Even so, you can still use the number on the package as a guide.

Total fat and cholesterol

Check the total fat in one serving. Also, look closely at the amount of saturated fat in a serving.

  • Choose foods that are low in fat -- because fat contains more than twice the calories per gram that carbohydrates and proteins do.
  • Choose foods that are low in saturated fat. For example, drink skim or 1% milk instead of 2% or whole milk.
  • If a food has less than 0.5 g of saturated fat in the serving size, the food maker is allowed to say it contains no saturated fat.

Pay attention to trans fats on any food label. These fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol.

  • Trans fats are mostly found in packaged and prepared foods, such as snack foods and desserts.
  • If a food contains trans fats, the amount will be listed on the label under total fat. Look for foods that have no trans fats or are low in them (1 g or less).

Cholesterol is listed under fat. A low amount of cholesterol per serving is best.

Total carbohydrate

Check the carbohydrates next. It is listed in bold letters to stand out. Sugars, starch, and dietary fiber make up the Total Carbohydrate.

  • Dietary fiber is listed just below Total Carbohydrate. Select foods that have at least 3 to 4 g of dietary fiber per serving. Whole-grain breads, fruits and vegetables, and legumes such as kidney beans and lentils are high in fiber.
  • Sugars are listed below Dietary Fiber.
  • All carbohydrates can raise your blood sugar (glucose), not just the actual sugar the food might contain. If you have diabetes and count carbohydrate grams, use the Total Carbohydrate grams for this food.

Protein

Between 10% and 30% of your daily calories should come from protein. Protein keeps your muscles, skin, and immune system healthy.

Sodium

Sodium is an essential element of all diets, but too much sodium can lead to higher blood pressures or worsen heart failure. You should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, and many people should consume less, such as 1,500 mg per day.

Vitamins and minerals

The amounts of vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron in any food are listed on the food label below Protein. You will want to eat 100% of the Daily Value of these.

Ingredients

Ingredients are what were used to make the food. They are often given below the Nutrition Facts label. Food makers must provide a list of ingredients somewhere on the package. They are listed in order from the most amount to the least used. A rule of thumb is, the fewer the ingredients a food has, the better. Fewer ingredients mean the food is less processed.

If you have any food allergies, look for ingredients that you are allergic to.

The front of food packages

There are not many rules about what information can appear on the front of a food package. The true facts about the food are on the Nutrition Facts label.

Many of the words on the front of the package are there to make the food appeal to you. Here is what some of these words and phrases mean:

  • "Enriched," "fortified," "added," "extra," and "plus." This means that the food contains 10% or more of the Daily Value. This only applies to vitamins, minerals, protein, dietary fiber, and potassium.
  • "Fruit drink" or "made with real fruit." It is likely that these foods have a very small amount of real fruit and a lot of added sugar. Instead of choosing these, look for products that say "100% Fruit Juice."
  • "Made with wheat," "rye," or "multigrain." These products may have very little whole grain. Look for the word "whole" before "grain" to ensure you are getting a 100% whole-grain product.
  • "Natural." In general, this means that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives) has been added to a food, and that it has been only lightly processed.
  • "Pure." There is no agreement for the definition of the word "pure" when it is used to describe food. Seeing it on a food package does not give you information about the food.
  • "Sugar-free." It means what it says. The food must contain no more than 0.5 g of sugar per serving. However, these words may not mean the food is low-calorie. The food may contain ingredients, such as fat, that do not lower the total calories.
  • "Fat-free." It means what it says. The food must contain no more than 0.5 g of fat per serving. However, these words may not mean the food is low-calorie. The food may contain ingredients, such as sugar, that do not lower the total calories.

Organic food labels have specific meanings:

  • "100% Organic." Must have 100% organic ingredients, except for any added salt or water.
  • "Organic." Must have 95% organic ingredients, except for any added salt or water.
  • "Made with organic." Must contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients.

Only foods that meet standards for "100% organic" or "organic" may display the USDA organic seal on the product.

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Review Date: 1/30/2018

Reviewed By: John E. Meilahn, MD, Bariatric Surgery, Chestnut Hill Surgical Associates, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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