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Posted: Monday, July 20, 2015

The Basics of Reading Food Labels

We’ve all seen “Nutrition Facts” labels. They’re on virtually everything you can buy at the grocery store, but for many people, they can be tough to understand. Sure, they’re designed to provide important information to help you make healthy decisions about the food you’re choosing to eat, but all of that doesn’t mean much if you can’t decipher the labels themselves. So, what do all those percentages, ingredients and serving sizes really say about what we’re eating, and what should you look for and pay the most attention to?

Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says the Nutrition Facts labels aren’t the first thing she looks for when buying an item. “Typically, when I’m shopping, the first thing I look at is the ingredients list, usually located just below the Nutrition Facts label,” she said. “The ingredients will appear in descending order by amount, so if sugar is listed first on the ingredients list, then that item is going to be fairly high in sugar. The important thing to remember is the shorter the ingredients list, the better. When you start looking at the Nutrition Facts label, however, things aren’t always as clear. I often find that people are confused by exactly what all of the information on the Nutrition Facts label means,” she added.

“There are some main components of a Nutrition Facts label,” Tillman said. “The first is the serving size, which is crucial to understand because everything else on the label will be based on the number of servings it lists. So, for instance, if there are two servings per package and you eat the whole thing, all of the information on the label is doubled. Next, you’ll want to take a look at the calories. Here, you’ll also want to know about how many calories you should be eating each day, which typically hovers around the 1,800 per day level for many women and about 2,000 per day for many men. So, an item that has 250 calories per serving – and has two servings in the package – is taking up 500 calories out of your 1,800 for the day,” she explained.

Tillman says the next area of the Nutrition Facts label is crucial. “Next up, you’ll need to look at the fat, cholesterol and sodium listings,” she said. “This is the area where you really want to look for the lowest numbers you can find as these are things we want to keep under control in our diets. So, an item with a 28 Percent Daily Value of sodium is going to be pretty high in sodium, and you’ll want to consider that as you plan your meals for the day. Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which may not be right for every person. Generally speaking, though, five percent or less is low and 20 percent or more is high,” she explained. “Near the bottom of the label, you’ll always see a listing of the fiber, vitamin and mineral content of the item. This is where you’ll see things such as calcium and iron, and you’ll want to try to get more of those,” she added.

“The really important thing to remember is not to get too stressed out when reading the Nutrition Facts labels,” Tillman said. “You want to be conscious of what you’re buying and eating, but not to an extreme degree. Also, the best foods you can eat – fruits and vegetables – have no need for Nutrition Facts labels at all,” she added.

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