Since 1994, food manufacturers have required the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to include food labels on all packaged food items. Labels can be a tremendous help in controlling our diets–but only if we understand them. Here is a primer to use as you browse the labels in your panty and at the grocery:
Serving Size – The serving size is listed at the top of the label. This is an important part of meal planning and also where many people go wrong. To get the total number of carbs, calories, etc., in an item, simply multiply the listed units by the number of servings. You may be surprised at how many items you assume are only 1 serving that are actually 2 or 3. The smaller the item, the more likely you are to make mistakes.
Calories – Calories are the units of energy within a food item. When you eat, your body converts calories into energy, uses what it can, and then stores the rest in the form of fat. On labels, you’ll find separate numbers for calories and calories from fat. The fat calorie number refers to the number of calories derived from fat. The higher this number, the more fat in the product. For example, a can of diced tomatoes may have 30 calories (units of energy) and 0 calories from fat, making this a product your body can use efficiently. However, a prepackaged children’s snack may have 130 calories with 40 calories from fat, making the processed food item a less efficient source of body fuel.
Daily Percent Values (% DV) – These tell you what portion of the recommended amounts of an item (fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, etc.) are in a single serving in comparison to how much you need for a full day. You should take this number in account when selecting items from the grocery shelf. For example, it you are going to buy a bottle of pasta sauce, and Brand A provides 11% DV of fat and Brand B provides 40% DV of fat, the best choice is Brand A. Be sure to look at the numbers in the context of all the others on the label. If brand A turns out to be heavy on the sodium, you should continue to shop, taking a look at Brand C and Brand D.
The FDA provides information on what specific label terms are supposed to mean.
“No fat” or “fat free” means that the item contains less than 1/2 gram of fat per serving, “Sugar free” means that the item contains less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving, and “Good source of fiber” indicates 2.5 g to 4.9 g. per serving. A full list can be obtained from the FDA website. You’ll note that there is no definition for “low carb,” so be particularly wary when this phrase is used.
Proper nutrition is important – Reading labels is only one step of many in the development of healthy eating habits.