Nutrition information included on food labels can help you know if a food is a healthy choice. Reading and comparing food labels can help you limit nutrients that you want to cut back on and increase nutrients that are good for you. Food labels can also help you avoid ingredients that may be a problem for you.
Food packages often have labels that point out a nutritional value, such as "low in fat and cholesterol" or "fortified with iron." By law, companies can use these terms only if the food meets specific requirements. Here are the requirements for some of these terms.
Calories and Sugar
Sometimes you will see a health claim made on a package. An example is, "Diets low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease." These claims are a way of letting you know about the special health benefits of some foods. The FDA allows food producers to include certain approved claims about health benefits on food packages if they are supported by careful research.
Food packages should list the ingredients somewhere on the package. The ingredients are listed in the order of the highest to lowest content by weight. For example, the ingredient list on a can of water packed tuna may read “tuna, water, salt.” The tuna is listed first because it weighs the most and is the main ingredient. The water weighs less than the tuna, and the salt weighs the least. The ingredient lists include any nutrients, color additives, preservatives, fats, or sugars that have been added. Food producers must be sure to list any food ingredient that is a common cause of allergic reactions. The food is listed in the ingredient list or after or next to the list. The foods that most often cause allergic reactions are milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, fish, soy, and wheat.
The FDA requires almost all foods in grocery stores to have a Nutrition Facts label. The Nutrition Facts label helps you make healthy food choices. It can also help you compare one food with another. This label is usually on the side or back of the package. Very small packages, foods made in the store, and foods made by small manufacturers do not have to include this label. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and raw fish do not have to be labeled, but the FDA is encouraging stores to be part of a nutrition information program that uses posters to provide this information. The posters show the nutrition content of common fruits, vegetables, and fish. They can be downloaded from the Internet and can be posted in the store for customers to see.
Serving Size: At the top of the nutrition label is the serving size and number of servings in the food package. The serving size is usually less than most people eat. If you eat 2 servings, you will get twice as many calories and twice the daily values listed on the nutrition label. Serving sizes can vary from product to product. If you are comparing 2 similar products, check to see if the serving sizes are the same.
Calories: The number of calories per serving is listed after the serving-size information. Calories are the measure of how much energy you get from a serving of a food. Many Americans take in more calories than they use for energy. Calories your body does not use for energy are stored as fat. Being careful about the number of calories in your diet can help you manage your weight. Generally, 40 calories a serving is low, 100 to 200 calories is average, and 400 calories or more is high. This guide, again, is based on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet.
Most of the information on the Nutrition Facts label is based on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet. The recommended daily calories for you may be higher or lower, depending on your age, gender, and how active you are. For example, inactive or older people usually need just 1600 calories a day. Active people and teenagers may need up to 2800 calories or more a day. Keep this in mind when you read the label because it may mean that you need more or less of certain nutrients than the package label shows. A footnote near the bottom of the label shows the amounts of some nutrients you should get from a 2000-calorie-a-day diet. It may also show these amounts for 2500 calories a day.
Calories from Fat: The label lists the number of calories that come from fat in a serving of the food. The general rule is that less than a third of your daily calories should come from fat. For example, if the food has 200 calories and 100 calories are from fat, 50% of the calories come from fat, which means the food is high in fat.
% Daily Value (% DV): The food label shows the percentage of the recommended daily amounts of important nutrients that you will get from 1 serving. A general rule of thumb for % DV is less than 5% is low and over 20% is high.
It’s a good idea to read the labels and choose foods that are low in the following nutrients:
The important nutrients listed on the label are:
The amount listed for carbohydrates is especially useful to people with diabetes or to others watching the amount of carbohydrates in their diet.
Some of the nutrients listed on the label (sugar, protein, and trans fat) don’t have a % DV. In such cases, you can compare the amounts of these nutrients with the amounts in a similar product to see which product best meets your needs. You can choose foods higher or lower in protein by looking at the grams of protein per serving of the different foods. For a healthier diet, always choose products with lower amounts of sugar and trans fat.
Eating a variety of foods everyday is the key to good health. In today's world where frozen dinners and packaged foods are commonplace, food labels can go a long way in helping you compare similar foods and make the healthiest choices.