What's in a Food Label?

Grocery shopping and reading labels is a delight for some and real drudgery for others. Regardless of how you feel about this task; judging whether or not a particular food fits into your diet has become easier since Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. The new food labels standardize serving sizes, lists the amounts of several nutrients and then compares these amounts to the recommended daily intake of 60% calories from carbohydrates, 10 - 15% calories from protein and 30% calories from fat. The label also indicates the food's vitamin and mineral contribution to your diet.

Take a look at a label on a food product. Here are some key points to consider when judging a particular product:

Check out the serving size. The serving size is designed to reflect the amount an average adult would eat at one sitting. Is this amount true for you? Be honest here. Do you really get four servings to a pint of ice cream or limit your serving of chips to twelve? If you are like most normal adults, you will have to adjust the following nutrient numbers to your actual serving size.

If weight loss is your goal, check the total calories and total grams of fat per serving. It is important to consider both as many of the new fat-free products still contribute substantial calories to your diet. This is particularly true of fat-free cookies and cakes. The manufacturers add extra sugar to these products to create the moisture that fat would have given the regular product. Remember, extra calories still have to be burned if you don't want to wear them in the form of body fat.

The label also indicates the food's calories from fat. This confuses many a consumer. The American Heart Association recommends we limit our calories from fat to less than 30% of our total calories. You can count up your total calories from fat each day if you wish, but there may be an easier way.

You may just want to just count the total amount of fat in the product and then compare it to your fat allotment for the day. If you know your daily limit is 40 grams of fat and one tablespoon of olive oil is 11 grams of fat, you can still make adjustments in your diet to include it. This way you do not have exclude those foods which derive a majority of their calories from fat.

Those percentages for fat, carbohydrate, and protein show you how much that food contributes to a 2000 calorie or 2400 calorie diet. This is simply a standard for women and men respectively and may be different for you. Make adjustments according to your ideal calorie intake.

The label includes the total amount of saturated fat, cholesterol and fiber per serving. Saturated fat and cholesterol have shown to raise serum cholesterol levels which contribute to coronary artery disease. The American Heart Association recommends we limit our saturated fat intake to one third of our total fat intake and cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams per day. For example, if your total fat intake is 45 grams, your saturated fat intake should be 15 grams or less.

A diet rich in dietary fiber, especially soluble fiber (like oat bran), may help lower serum cholesterol. The National Cancer Institute recommends 25 grams of dietary fiber a day to lower the risk of developing colon cancer and other gastrointestinal diseases. Dietary fiber not only helps in maintaining bowel regularity but it also helps in weight control by adding bulk to the diet.

The label indicates the percentages of Vitamins A and C, calcium and iron the food contributes to a 2000 or 2400 calorie diet.

Remember, these labels are meant to be a guide. There is no such thing as a "bad food"; so use the labels to incorporate your favorite foods into your diet. If ice cream is your "vice", you can either count the total grams of fat into your daily allotment or you can find a reasonable substitute such as frozen yogurt. In this way, you can avoid feeling deprived. Deprivation never works long term, so learn to enjoy your"vices".

The task of reading labels may initially be laborious; but with a little practice, you too will become a pro.

Better yet, you can sidestep a lot of label reading by shopping the perimeter of the market. Other than picking up a few necessary staples in the center aisles, this method is a great way to avoid extra salt, sugar, additives and preservatives in your diet. Fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry and bakery items do not contain all the additives and preservatives required to allow a food to sit on a self without spoiling. Those additives and preservatives are often salts of sodium compounds which add unnecessary sodium to your diet. You are better off avoiding them wherever possible.

Regardless of where you shop, at the market or at the vending machine, the following tips will help you avoid becoming a walking causality of modern man's quest for convenience.

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Updated on: 01/12/10