Food Labels–To the Point

“Individuals who frequently read nutrition labels tend to both value healthy eating and engagein healthy dietary practices more thanindividuals who read labels infrequently”, say Dan Graham and Melissa Laska from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Food labels were introduced in the US as an effort to deliver more information to consumers in order to make better eating decisions. Recent research mentions, however, that consumers often do not read Nutrition Facts labels and when they do, labels are commonly misinterpreted.

Consumers want to have the information efficiently.  Consumers want the labels to be clear, easy to read, and consistent. Although it often passes unnoticed, nutritional labels give us important and useful information.  It is through this information that we can make the right choices when buying food products.

Here, I suggest three steps to take when reading a food label to help you quickly make the healthiest choice:

Step 1 – Check serving size

The nutrition label always lists a serving size at the top of the label, which is an amount of food, such as 1 cup of macaroni & cheese, two cookies, or one granola bar.  Serving sizes help people understand how much they’re eating.  The label also informs you of how many servings are inside that package of food. Pay attention to serving sizes when comparing two labels because there are no serving size standards set for companies to follow.  Two granola bars may have different sizes and this should be accounted for when comparing calories and nutrients.

Step 2 – Check calories

The number of calories tells you the amount of energy in the food. It is important to pay attention to calories because if you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.  The food label also states the number of calories that come from fat.  But the number of calories alone will not determine if a product is healthy or not. Some products have almost no calories but are low in nutritional value.  One food that can be used to illustrate how the number of calories is not the most important factor is a diet coke: this food has zero calories, and theoretically would not contribute to the daily caloric intake, but there are also no important nutrients that our body needs to work properly. Conversely, if you check an orange juice box, you will see more calories than a diet coke, but the latter also has several important nutrients for efficient metabolism, including vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants.

Step 3 – Check high and low nutrients

Nutrient information is given in percentages on the food label based on a 2,000-calorie adult diet.  This might help you judge the product, but it may not be all you need.  For example the label for 1 granola bar, an adult would read that the bar provides 1.19 grams of fiber, only 5% of the person’s daily needs.  So that means he or she would have to consume other sources of fiber to attain 100% of that is recommended each day.

Analyze and understand two key categories– those which you should ensure you get enough of in your diet and those which you should
 limit in your diet.  That’s when the 5% and 20% rule comes in handy.  A nutrient that has less than 5% of its daily value is considered to be low in that nutrient, and if it has more than 20% is considered to be high in that nutrient.  Based on this rule, the nutrient label here shows low sodium and high amounts of saturated fat.

Another suggestion is to check the trans fat in the product.  Consumption of trans fat dramatically increases the risk of developing heart disease.  The next things to check are the percentage values for saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium.  You should always limit these nutrients because they are found in most packaged foods and are also linked to heart diseases.  Finally, after checking the percentage of nutrients to be limited, you should check the percentage for dietary fiber – especially if the product is a grain based one, such as cereals, bars, crackers and breads.  It is important to get as close to 20% as possible when comparing food labels and choosing the best product.  Fiber is linked to lowering blood fat levels, controlling blood sugar, managing your weight and regulating your bowel habits.

Livia Ly  is a Nutrition Expert and DMMD health contributor.

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