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Get to Know Food Labels

There are only a few types of foods that are exempt from nutrition fact labeling; these foods include raw fruits, vegetables, and fish. In fact, most products sold at your local grocery store contain these labels located on the side or on the back of the packaging. They are there to help in selecting foods and beverages that meet specific nutritional dietary needs and help in making informed decisions on good nutrition and health. Knowing how to read these food labels assures that we get more value for our money and protects us from incorrect claims on the product packs. Here are some guidelines to learning to read and understand what the information means.

Step 1: Start with the Serving Size. Look here for both the serving size (the recommended amount people should eat at one time) and the number of servings in the package.

Compare your portion size (the amount you actually eat) to the serving size listed on the panel. The Nutrition Facts applies to the serving size, so if the serving size is one cup and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the calories, fat and other nutrients than what is listed on the label.

Step 2: Check Out the Total Calories. Find out how many calories are in a single serving. The dietary guidelines for adults range from 1,600 to 3,000 calories per day — a wide range. Keep in mind, all calories are not created equal. Simplifying calories down to one number neglects to consider two important factors about food: nutrition density and digestion time. Ideally, you want your calories to come from foods high in nutrition and slower to digest.

Step 3: Let the Percent Daily Values Be a Guide. Use percent Daily Values (DV) to help evaluate how a particular food fits into your daily meal plan.

Low is 5% or less. Aim low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium.

High is 20% or more. Aim high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Step 4: Check Out the Nutrition Terms. With so many different terms, what they mean can be confusing. These definitions and guides can help understand what you should identify.

Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.

Low cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.

Reduced: At least 25% less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product.

Good source of: Provides at least 10 to 19% of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.

Excellent source of: Provides at least 20% or more of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.

Calorie free: Less than five calories per serving.

Fat free/sugar free: Less than ½ gram of fat or sugar per serving.

Low sodium: 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.

High in: Provides 20% or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving.

Step 5: Choose Low in Saturated Fat, Added Sugars and Sodium. Eating less saturated fat, added sugars and sodium may help reduce your risk for chronic disease. Saturated fat and trans-fat are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Eating too much added sugar makes it difficult to meet nutrient needs within your calorie requirement. High levels of sodium can add up to high blood pressure. Remember to aim for low percentage DV of these nutrients.

Food nutrition labels help you make informed choices about the foods you buy and consume. Once the information presented is understood, these labels make it easy to follow a healthy diet and allow you to choose the most nutritious foods.

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