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Understanding Food Labels and Health Claims

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Updated May 12, 2013

The food label is your friend when it comes to nutrition and portion control. If you have a food allergy, it is essential to read the label. Bring your reading glasses to the store as the print is often tiny.

  • Serving size: This is the amount per serving. It may or may not apply to the whole container; you will find that out in the next number. You may be shocked at how small a "serving" is, as restaurant portions are often two or more servings.
  • Servings per container: You might assume that bag of potato chips is 1 serving and the 140 calories it lists applies to the whole bag. Think again and check: Cans and bags you may believe are single servings could be 2, 2 1/2, 3 or more servings. All the numbers listed below for calories, fat, carbohydrates, etc. are based on one serving, not on the entire container.
  • Percent Daily Values: This number is calculated for each nutrient and based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories for most of them, 2,500 for some. For fat, cholesterol, and sodium the daily intake is a "less than" value as you are encouraged to stay under the daily value. For other nutrients, it is an "at least" value. If the label has less than 5 percent of the daily value of a nutrient, it is considered low in that nutrient. If it has more than 20 percent, it is considered high in that nutrient.
  • Calories: This is the number of calories in one serving. Again, look to make sure how many servings the container holds and what the serving size is. You can determine whether a serving is low or high in calories with these rules of thumb: 40 calories is low, 100 calories is moderate, 400 or more calories is high.
  • Calories from Fat: This is the total calories from fat in one serving of this food.
  • Total Fat: The number of grams of fat in one serving of this food. Health experts recommend limiting the intake of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium, which is why these are listed in this area. You want to aim at staying below the daily value percentage listed.
  • Saturated Fat: The weight of saturated fat in one serving of this food. Try to stay below the daily value; lower is better.
  • Trans Fat: No daily value is given because it is recommended that you eliminate trans fat completely from your diet.
  • Cholesterol: While we need some cholesterol, most of us get too much in our diet. Aim to stay below the daily value.
  • Sodium: As with cholesterol, sodium is a needed part of the diet but we tend to get too much in our diet. Aim to stay below the daily value.
  • Total Carbohydrates: We now enter the section of the label where we aim to meet or exceed the daily value for these nutrients. Total carbs includes complex and simple carbs in one serving of food. These can be sugars, starches, or fiber.
  • Dietary Fiber: Most people do not get enough fiber in their diet. Fiber promotes good bowel function. Aim to exceed the daily value for fiber, 25 to 30 total grams per day.
  • Sugars: Sugars include naturally occurring simple carbohydrates such as lactose in milk, as well as added sugars. These sugars make up the rest of the carbohydrate value.
  • Protein: A daily value for protein isn't listed unless the label makes a claim that it is high in protein.
  • Vitamins and Minerals: Most people do not get enough vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, or iron in their diet. These four items are displayed to help you get enough in your diet.
Next: Ingredient List
Decoding Label Health Claims

Sources:

USFDA How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.

USFDA A Key to Choosing Healthful Foods: Using the Nutrition Facts on the Food Label.

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