Making Sense of Food Labels
You're determined to keep your New Year's resolution to eat healthier and lose weight, but when you go shopping you're confused by the product labels on foods. How do you know what's best for you and what's not good? Let me offer some helpful guidelines.
The labels of all pre-packaged foods contain two lists that are required by federal regulations. Manufacturers must provide a list of ingredients and a panel of "nutrition facts." Ingredients are what is contained in or added to the item in question. Any food made with more than one ingredient must, by law, tell the consumer exactly what is inside. The ingredients list must include any artificial chemicals, colors, flavor enhancers, preservatives or other additives. Items in ingredients lists are listed in descending order by weight. Based on this information, you usually can make an informed decision as to whether or not you want to consume the product.
The nutrition facts panel starts out by specifying an individual serving size and the number of servings in each container. It also lists the number of calories and calories from fat contained in the food item. The list goes on to specify by grams or milligrams the total fat content and how much is saturated fat as well as amounts of cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates (with dietary fiber and sugar as sub-contents), protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.
In addition, the facts panel specifies what percent of the recommended daily allowance (or daily value) each component has. The percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, which is average for most healthy individuals. Your recommended intake may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs, which a licensed nutritionist can help to determine. At the bottom of the nutrition facts list is a chart showing how many grams or milligrams of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate and dietary fiber are recommended daily by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for both 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diets.
Keep in mind that the nutrition facts panel doesn't list every component of a food item, only those determined to be the most important in the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Guide Pyramid. Also consider that stated serving sizes often are smaller than the portions most people eat. Therefore, if one serving is equal to one cup and you eat two cups, you've consumed twice the number of calories and other nutrients listed on the label.
The general rule, if you're trying to lose weight, is to avoid or moderate your intake of foods that are high in calories, especially calories from saturated fat. Using the nutrition facts chart, you can roughly gauge what percentage of your daily value these foods contain in the key categories listed. You should eat them with other foods that add up to 100 percent of your recommended daily value, or as close to it as possible. It takes a little thought and some math, but once you get used to it, the task is not as formidable as it first seems.
Consumers reading food labels also will see dozens of words and phrases such as "low (or reduced) fat," "no added sugar," "fortified," "lean (or extra lean)," "high in ... ," "lite," and other designations. What these mean and what you should look for in a product are topics of their own and will be discussed here next month as we explore this issue further. A special thanks to Molly Kimball, director of nutrition for the PEP Program at Elmwood Fitness Center, for furnishing data for this column. For more information or a copy of the nutrition guidelines, contact me at the number below.