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Using the Food Label for Nutrition Information

Armen Hareyan's picture

Under regulations from the FDA and the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the food label, found on almost all processed foods, offers more complete, useful and accurate nutrition information than ever before. Even when restricting calories and portions, you should use the Nutrition Facts panel on the food label to make sure you get all the essential nutrients for good health.

When concerned about reducing calories or controlling your weight, one of the first places you should look on the Nutrition Facts panel is the serving size and the number of servings per package, which are listed at the top. The serving size affects the calories, the amounts of each nutrient, and the percent Daily Values (%DV) for the nutrients listed on the panel.

"To be sure you know how many calories you're consuming, you need to compare what you are actually eating to the serving size on the label," says Naomi Kulakow, coordinator for education and outreach in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. For example, if there is one cup in a serving and the package contains two servings, you need to double the calories and other nutrient numbers if you eat the whole package. Many items sold as single portions--like a 20-ounce soft drink, a 3-ounce bag of chips, and a large bagel--actually provide two or more servings.

In addition to calories and serving sizes, there are other parts of the Nutrition Facts panel, such as the list of nutrients, that can help you make healthy food choices while you lose weight. The nutrients listed first are the ones that some people eat more of than they need. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk for chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, or high blood pressure. "These are nutrients you should try to limit in your diet," says Kulakow. "The goal is to stay below 100 percent of the Daily Value for each of them for the day."

The Nutrition Facts panel also shows how much dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron are contained in a serving. These are the nutrients you want to get at least 100 percent of the Daily Value every day for good health.

The %DV is the quickest way to determine how a serving of food fits in with recommendations for a healthful diet, says Kulakow. To tell if a food is high or low in a nutrient, "just glance at the %DV--5 percent of the Daily Value or less is low, and 20 percent or more is high," she says.

You can also use the %DV to compare similar products or to help you balance food choices throughout the day. "For example, if you eat a favorite food that's high in fat at one meal, balance it with low-fat foods at other times of the day," says Kulakow. Or use the %DV when comparing foods and claims, for example, to find out which frozen dinner is lower in saturated fat--particularly when it involves a comparative nutrient claim, such as reduced-fat. "You don't need to know the precise definition of 'low' or 'reduced,'" says Kulakow. "Just look at the Percent Daily Value and see which product is higher or lower in the nutrient you are interested in."

The %DVs are based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet. But even if you eat more or less than 2,000 calories, the %DV still gives you a frame of reference to gauge your calorie and nutrient intake.

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"Too often, people use the food label only when they want to restrict calories and fat--but not as a tool to help them increase the nutrients they need to get in adequate or greater amounts," says Kulakow. While restricting calories is important for weight loss, getting adequate amounts of fiber, calcium, and other key nutrients is also critical to good health.

Kulakow advises caution when choosing foods that are labeled "fat-free" and "low-fat." Fat-free doesn't mean calorie-free. To make a food tastier, sometimes extra sugars are added, which adds calories. (See "Fat-Free vs. Regular Calorie Comparison." ) So dieters should always check the Nutrition Facts panel to get complete information, says Kulakow.

Get further guidance on using the Nutrition Facts panel on this Web site.

Increasing Physical Activity

Most health experts recommend a combination of a reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity for weight loss.

In addition to helping to control weight, physical activity decreases the risk of dying from coronary heart disease and reduces the risk of developing diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers. Researchers also have found that daily physical activity may help a person lose weight by partially lessening the slow-down in metabolism that occurs during weight loss.

Exercise does not have to be strenuous to be beneficial. And some studies show that short sessions of exercise several times a day are just as effective at burning calories and improving health as one long session.

To lose weight and to maintain a healthy weight after weight loss, many adults will likely need to do more than 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity daily.


This article is reprinted from www.fda.gov