Making Sense of Nutrition Labels

Learning to maintain a healthy weight is more important than ever, given that more and more of us are overweight or obese. One of the easiest tools to help you watch your weight is the nutrition label on packaged foods. The label gives you a guide for both calories and nutrition by letting you know what's in the foods you eat.

At first glance, a nutrition label may seem confusing or overwhelming. Because packaging space is often limited, the nutrition label was designed to convey a large amount of information in a small space. Unfortunately, many people have difficulty interpreting that information.

Here's a look at a typical nutrition label for a generic macaroni and cheese.

Serving Size: This is the suggested amount of food in a serving of this item. In this example, a single, one-cup serving has 400 calories when prepared according to the package directions.

Servings Per Container: This is the number of servings in the package. In this example, the package contains about three servings. If you eat the entire box, you will have consumed three times the calories intended, for a total of 1,200 calories.

By the column

There are three columns in this nutrition label: amount per serving; as packaged; and prepared.

Amount Per Serving: This column lists the amount of a specific nutrient in ONE serving. The amount is usually listed in grams (g) or milligrams (mg).

As Packaged: This column refers to the number of calories or the percentage of a specific nutrient found in a serving before it is cooked (and other ingredients are added). This column is useful to show you how many calories are added by preparation. Not all labels have an “as packaged” column.

Prepared: This column represents the number of calories and percentage of specific ingredients in the food after it is prepared according to the directions on the package. In this example, milk, margarine and the packaged cheese mix are added during preparation. The “As Packaged” column provides a reference, so you can see how many calories preparation adds.

By the row

Calories: This row tells the number of calories in a packaged serving and in a prepared serving. In this example, preparation nearly doubles the number of calories per serving (260 vs. 400). The extra calories largely come from the quarter cup of margarine added during preparation.

Calories from Fat: This row helps you determine whether a food is low in fat. In this example, only 15 calories per serving come from fat "as packaged," but a prepared serving contains 150 fat calories. That’s a 10-fold increase in fat calories. To determine the percentage of calories from fat per serving, divide the fat calories (150 in this example) by the total calories (400), and multiply by 100: 150/400 x 100 = 37.5 percent. A low-fat food is one that contains less than 30 percent calories from fat; this is not a low-fat meal.

Total Fat: This row usually describes how much fat is in a serving. In this example, however, 2 grams is followed by an asterisk for a footnote. The footnote tells you that the amount of fat listed is what is contained “in unprepared product." After adding the quarter cup of margarine during preparation, a serving contains 16.6 grams of fat, or about 27 percent of your daily fat allotment, based on a 2,500-calorie diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that no more than 30 percent of your daily calories come from fat; that's a total of about 83 grams of fat in a 2,500-calorie diet. If you eat the whole box, you will have consumed a whopping 66.4 grams of fat, or about 80 percent of your daily fat allowance. Although this label does not, most other nutrition labels list the total grams of fat for a prepared serving. You can calculate fat calories by multiplying the grams of fat by 9, because there are 9 calories in every gram of fat. Saturated and trans-fat amounts are generally listed in rows beneath total fat.

Cholesterol: This row lists the total grams of cholesterol per serving. In this example, because margarine has no cholesterol (compared with butter), adding a quarter cup of margarine does not increase the cholesterol in this product.

Sodium: This row lists the total sodium per serving. In this example, a “prepared” serving provides 37 percent of the daily sodium allotment of 2,300 mg. If you eat the whole box, you will have exceeded your daily recommendation for sodium, for a total of 111 percent.

Total Carbohydrate: This row and the indented rows below provide the amount of total carbohydrate and a breakdown of complex carbohydrates, fiber and sugars. In this example, a single, prepared serving supplies 17 percent of your total carbohydrate, based on a 2,500-calorie diet.

Protein: This row shows the total grams of protein in a serving. Most labels do not provide percentages of complete and incomplete proteins. As a general rule, if the product contains milk, meat or egg, the protein is complete, meaning it contains all eight essential amino acids. If the product is plant-based, the proteins are probably incomplete. Your daily protein intake should include some complete proteins.

Vitamins and Minerals: These rows show the percentage of various vitamins and minerals supplied in one serving. As a rule, dried and canned foods supply little in the way of vitamins or minerals, as can be seen on their nutrition labels, unless specific supplements are added. Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables are your best source of these nutritional elements. Dairy products remain your best source of calcium.

The values on the nutrition label are generally based on a 2,500-calorie diet. If you eat more than 2,500 calories per day, a single serving will provide smaller percentages of vitamins, minerals, fat, sodium, carbohydrate and protein than shown on the label. If you eat less than 2,500 calories a day, a single serving will provide greater percentages than shown. Read the nutrition label carefully to see whether the numbers are based on a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet.

How to use the information

A nutrition label offers a wealth of information once you know how to read it. It tells you not only what nutrients a product contains, but also what nutrients it lacks. Knowing these deficiencies allows you to tailor your overall diet to make sure you get the nutrients you need.

In this example, how do you turn a high-fat, boxed macaroni dish into a healthy, well-rounded meal? Begin by passing up the recommended added ingredients. Instead of adding 2 percent milk, use skim or 1 percent milk; these options include vitamin D and little or no fat. Don't add margarine; instead, add 1 tablespoon of grated cheddar cheese or 1 tablespoon of fat-free cream cheese. One minute before the macaroni is finished cooking, add diced green pepper (vitamin C), shredded carrot (vitamin A) and any other finely cut vegetable you choose to the boiling water. Boiling for only one minute preserves most of the nutrition and leaves the vegetables crisp. Drain the macaroni and vegetables, and add the dry ingredients from the package, the milk and the cheese. Stir in a drained can of water-packed tuna (protein and B vitamins). You now have a low-fat tuna-noodle meal that supplies complete proteins, adequate carbohydrate and a lot more nutrition than the original recipe would have provided.

Read the nutrition labels on all the foods you purchase. You may be surprised at what you learn. If you buy sweetened cereals, you'll see that for most of them, more than half of the total calories come from sugar. Even breakfast or nutrition bars, which may sound healthy, contain mostly sugar and fat.

Labels can help you change your diet for the better, maintain your weight in a healthy range and avoid tempting, but low-nutrition foods that seem to beckon from every supermarket shelf.

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