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Food labels worth reading, understanding

Food labels worth reading, understanding

Tom Laue, Executive Editor

Food labels on most grocery items can be confusing. They list calories, nutrients, vitamins and minerals, and percentages of all these things in the food item, usually assuming a 2,000-calorie daily diet.

So what's the poor food buyer to do? As with your meals, take it one bite at a time. By knowing how data relate, you can regulate your intake of one or even several things at a time.

Serving size: most important

The "Serving Size" information at the very top is critical. You might think nutrition facts would apply to an entire can, bag, bottle, or carton. But they don't. They apply to a "serving size," let's say a cup. The label goes on to say, for example, "Servings per container: 4." So the container holds four cups, but all data that follows pertain to just one cup.

Knowing this, you won't fall into the trap of thinking you're meeting listed nutrition levels when you down an entire item. In our example, you would really be consuming four times that. Ouch!

Reading down the label, next come total calories per serving (remember, not the entire product) and calories from fat. Both figures are important, especially if you're working to improve your own figure.

The biggest category on food labels is usually nutrients contained in the product. Each nutrient's number of grams (g) or milligrams (mg) and percentage of daily recommended consumption – or Daily Value – is shown.

Under nutrients data are vitamins and minerals (calcium, iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, etc.), along with their percentage of each day's recommended amount. Next is a chart showing if the food item's nutrients (total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, protein) meet, exceed, or fall below Daily Values based on 2,000- or 2,500-calorie daily diets.

Using what you know so far

This all seems relatively easy when you need to control just one part of your diet – salt intake, for example. It gets a little more complicated if you need to control for multiple health concerns.

Let's imagine, for example, that somebody must avoid salt, wants to lose weight, and is pre-diabetic. If the person grabs a can of almond filling used in desserts and looks only at sodium content, everything is fine. There's not a pinch of salt. Good news, but good choice?

The almond filling is sugar-laden, not healthy for a pre-diabetic. And food products with so much sugar aren't likely to be any friend of weight watchers, either.

If you have a medical condition that requires you to follow a special diet and are confused, make sure to bring it up at your next doctor's visit. Sometimes a visit to a dietician can help.