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Do You Understand the Nutrition Label?

Nutrition Facts labelHow do you know whether you are making the best food choices to eat right? One way is to read and understand nutrition labels.

Are you confused by all the information labels contain? Let’s start with the Nutrition Facts label to see if we can make things clearer.

First, find the serving size. If you plan to eat less or more, you will need to reduce or increase the amounts listed for all the nutrients.

Also note the number of servings in the package. Many times people will consume all the food in a container and not realize they have eaten two, three or more servings.

A good example is microwave popcorn. Often the bag is meant to serve two to three people, but you end up eating it all and consuming two to three times more calories and fat than expected.

Next, look at the calories and the calories from fat. If more than a third of the calories come from fat, you are probably eating a higher fat food.

Notice the grams of total fat, saturated fat and trans fats. This food has 12 grams of fat. That means each serving has over 2 teaspoons of fat.

Saturated fat and trans fats are listed along with dietary cholesterol because all three can raise blood cholesterol levels. In fact, trans and saturated fats may raise blood cholesterol more than dietary cholesterol. When choosing between similar foods, add the saturated and trans fats to know the total amount of harmful fat you are getting. Then choose the product with the lowest amount and the lowest cholesterol level.

Check the sodium content, and try to eat less than 2,300 milligrams per day. Sodium can increase blood pressure. High blood pressure is the most common chronic disease in this country. For the serving listed for this food, you will be getting 20 percent of the daily value for sodium, so this is a high sodium food.

Total carbohydrate content will be important for people who have diabetes. Carbohydrate raises blood glucose or blood sugar levels more than any other nutrient.

Dietary fiber is important for everyone. Most of us do not get the 25-35 grams recommended each day by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Fiber is the only carbohydrate that does not raise the blood glucose levels. We need fiber to prevent constipation and fill us up so we will not overeat.

The amount of sugar on the label includes both natural and added sugar. 100 percent juice, fruit and milk look high in sugar, but these are natural, not added, sugars. Sugar in desserts, soft drinks and candy are often associated with saturated and trans fats and few, if any, vitamins and minerals, while sugar in fruit and milk are associated with many other healthy nutrients like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

We tend to eat plenty of protein in this country, but getting enough may be a problem for older adults and individuals who follow very strict vegetarian diets.

Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron are only listed with their percent daily values. These values are based on recommendations established in 1968 so they may not be that helpful. However, you can use them to see whether a food is a good or poor source of a nutrient. Five percent of a nutrient is considered low, and 20 percent is high.