Food Labels: Friend or Foe?

What is the one thing on a food product that is most commonly ignored or misinterpreted? It would be the food label or, more specifically, the nutrition facts. Often times, you glance at it to “check” how many calories you would consume or how much sodium is in an item, but do you really understand what you are reading?

The food label in this example has eight servings per container and a single serving is ½ cup (approximately 82 grams). In order to make food more appealing, food companies may lower the serving size so that all the information applies to a smaller portion. This will give the appearance of a healthier product when in reality, that may not be the case.

The next section is the Calories and Calories from Fat per each serving. The Calories from Fat tells you how many of the total calories are derived from fat. For this example, there are 130 out of 200 calories from fat. Nutrition experts recommend that we obtain no more than 30 percent of our daily calories from fat. In this one product alone, there is an extremely high amount of fat that is double what should be consumed.

A good rule of thumb is to ignore the weight measurements and focus on the percentages when you read the nutrients section. If a product has roughly 10-20 percent of any given nutrient then it is a good source of that particular item. Any percentage less is too little and vice versa for any percentage more. All of the Daily Value percents are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The average diet (meaning average height, weight, metabolism and activity levels) should be roughly 2,000 calories. For more sedentary individuals, it would be a good idea to lessen the amount of calories consumed or the threat of rapid weight gain is more of a possibility.

If you eat one cup of this product (two servings) you will be consuming 28 grams of fat which equates to 44 percent of a 2000 calorie diet (that is almost half of your daily allowances). The Saturated Fat and Trans Fat categories should be as low as possible due to the fact that these items are the most harmful to your heart. A single serving has as much saturated fat as two servings has total fat. If you haven’t walked away from this product already, now is a good time to do so.
But wait, there’s more! The nutrition facts also display how many milligrams of cholesterol and sodium are in each serving. These values are important to read and understand, especially for people who need to monitor the amount of salt and cholesterol they may have in their diets.

Going by what you have learned so far, the next section on the nutrition facts label details how many carbohydrates there are per serving. However, you know that a minimum of 10 percent is necessary in order for this to be a good source of that nutrient. Carbohydrates are 12 percent of your daily allowance for two servings in addition to the 44 percent of Fat that tags along with them based on the example.
The amount of simple sugars in a product should be low (less than or equal to 5 percent) because it provides useless calories. Protein, dietary fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron should definitely be between 10-20 percent. They are important to your overall health and are necessary components of a well-balanced diet.

The grid at the bottom of the nutrition facts is a guide of recommended dietary advice for all Americans based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. This section is the same on all products unless the packaging is too small. The recommended amounts for the 2,000/2,500 calorie diet are for the entire daily allowance. For this product, there are 2 grams of fiber for two servings. On any given day, a person on a 2,000 calorie diet should consume at least 25 grams. Clearly, this product is not a good source of dietary fiber.

The additional comments typically found below this section inform the reader of how many calories are derived from fat (9 calories per gram), carbohydrates and protein (both 4 calories per gram). An easy way to quickly determine the amount of calories in a product is shown in a simple math equation. Example: There are 10 grams of fat, 10 grams of carbohydrates, and 10 grams of protein in a serving size. 10 grams of fat X 9 (calories per gram) = 90 calories from fat; 10 grams of carbohydrates X 4 = 40 calories from carbohydrates; and 10 grams of protein X 4 = 40 grams from protein. The total number of calories is 170. Overall, there are 80 calories from protein and carbohydrates and 90 calories from fat. Roughly 53 percent of the calories in this example would be from fat (as stated previously that high of a percentage is not recommended).

Nutrition facts are an ally, not an enemy. They are on products to help us control our diets and understanding them is extremely important. How else would you determine which products are healthy for you and which products will take you from a size 10 to a size 14? Knowing is half the struggle, the other half is deciding how to use that knowledge.

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