How to Decode Nutritional Labels

Making sense of nutrition facts is the first step towards a healthy diet

"Calories," "Fat-Free," "Organic"—chances are you have come across these words while perusing items at the local grocery store. But what do they mean? It's pretty easy to deem something covered in salt as unhealthy, but there is much more that goes into understanding nutrition facts. Learn the basics to make smart, health-conscious choices. Below are some real-world examples to help put things into perspective.

Figuring Out Fat

When seeking a fat-conscious breakfast option, how does oatmeal measure up? Looking at the label for the original version of Quaker Instant Oatmeal, the product has a total of two grams of fat, none of it trans or saturated. We can deem it a good choice because trans fats and saturated fats can boost cholesterol levels, leading to heart disease. The general makeup of fat in the oatmeal comes from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats—both considered to be "healthy." As long as they are eaten in moderation, there is no need to avoid them. As a general rule, keep this in mind: no more than a third of the total calories in an item should come from fat. To calculate this quickly, divide the calories from fat by the total number of calories in a serving and multiply by the result by100. Of the oatmeal's 100-calorie serving, twenty come from fat. Therefore, 20% of the oatmeal's calories come from fat, confirming our belief that it's a healthy, low-fat choice for breakfast.

All About Sugar

When looking at a label for Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce, you'll see that it is fat free, but does that mean it's healthy? Look more closely and you'll notice its high sugar content—a whopping 21 grams per serving. In general, the grams of sugar found on nutritional labels are forms of fructose, the main sugar found in food. Labels don’t have to specify types of sugars, but keep in mind that although the body can break down simple sugars like fructose in small amounts, high amounts of them will not be converted into glucose—energy—but will instead form compounds of fat. Of course sugars are found in many foods, including healthy items like fruits and vegetables. The difference is that fruits and vegetables also contain vitamins, antioxidants, and belly-filling fiber, so ounce for ounce, they are more satisfying and nutritionally dense than sugar filled foods like this sauce.

Labels might also state that a food is “sugar free” or has “no sugar added.” The former meaning less than .5 grams of sugar per serving, while the latter means that no sugar was added to the product during production or packing.

Sizing Up Sodium

Beans are a versatile, protein-filled ingredient. When looking at a can of Bush’s Best Original Baked Beans, seasoned with bacon and brown sugar, the label states that the product is 98 percent fat free and high in fiber. Although the baked beans do have six grams of protein and five grams of dietary fiber per serving, they are jam-packed with sodium—550 milligrams in just ½ cup. Sodium is an essential nutrient and is necessary for normal bodily function, but too much of it can lead to hypertension. For adults under the age of 51, the maximum daily intake is 1500 to 2000 milligrams. So if you stick to the suggested baked-bean portion size, you might be okay if you limit your salt intake throughout the rest of the day. But otherwise, look for a low-sodium alternative (35 milligrams or fewer per serving). Try seasoning sodium-free canned beans with garlic, herbs, and just a pinch of salt.

A "Good Source" of Information

When reading food packages, you may notice phrases like "good source of fiber " or "excellent source of vitamin A." These may sound like somewhat meaningless claims, but they are actually regulated terms and there is a science to their use. They refer to the daily value percentage of nutrients—found in the far right column on a nutrition label. For example, a can of Progresso Vegetable Classics Garden Vegetable soup has 500 milligrams of potassium per serving, which equates to 14% of the daily value. According to the FDA’s rules, a serving of food that meets 10 to 19 percent of the daily value of a nutrient makes it a "good source" of that nutrient. Twenty percent or higher would make it an "excellent source." The vegetable soup's potassium level makes it a good source of the nutrient—essential for healthy heart function. The soup is also a good source of Vitamin A, meeting 15% of the daily value. But look elsewhere to meet calcium and vitamin C requirements—with both adding up to less than 5% of suggested amounts, this soup is a poor source of those nutrients.

Going Organic

It seems like there is an organic version of everything these days, from produce and snacks, to non-food items such as deodorant and shampoo. But it takes consumer savvy to understand the labeling laws. A box of Kashi Autumn Wheat cereal bears the green "USDA Organic" seal. This means the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program regulates the standards of its producer. This logo appears on single-ingredient foods, as well as products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Any product labeled as organic must identify each organically produced ingredient on the ingredient section of the information panel; the certifying agent must be displayed as well. Meeting all these criteria, the Kashi cereal is legally designated as "organic". Sometimes you will also see the words "Made With Organic Ingredients" on a food label. These products contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, but do not bear the USDA organic seal.

Additional reporting by Paul W. Allison Jr.

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