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How to read food labels

About Food Labels

Food labels tell you the nutrition facts about the foods you buy. Use the food labels to help you choose healthier foods.

What to Look For

Always check the serving size first. All the information on the label is based on the serving size. Many packages have more than 1 serving.

For example, the serving size for spaghetti is usually 2 ounces uncooked, or 1 cup cooked. If you eat 2 cups at a meal, you are eating 2 servings. That is 2 times the amount of the calories, fats, and other items listed on the label.

Calorie information tells you the number of calories in 1 serving. Adjust the number of calories if you eat smaller or larger portions. This number helps determine how foods affect your weight.

The total carbs next are listed in bold letters to stand out and are measured in grams (g). Sugar, starch, and dietary fiber make up the total carbs on the label. Sugar is listed separately. All of these carbs raise your blood sugar.

If you have diabetes and count carbs, use the total carb number.

Dietary fiber is listed just below total carbs. Buy foods with at least 3 - 4 grams fiber per serving. Whole-grain breads, fruits and vegetables, and beans and legumes are high in fiber.

Food Label Guide for Whole Wheat Bread

Check the total fat in 1 serving. Pay special attention to the amount of saturated fat in 1 serving.

Choose foods that are low in saturated fat. For example, drink skim or 1% milk instead of 2% or whole milk. Skim milk has only a trace of saturated fat. Whole milk has 5 grams of this fat per serving.

Fish is much lower in saturated fat than beef. Three ounces of fish has less than 1 gram of this fat. Three ounces of hamburger has more than 5 grams.

If a food has less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat in the serving size on the label, the food maker can say it contains no saturated fat. Remember this if you eat more than 1 serving.

You should also pay attention to trans fats on any food label. These fats raise "bad" cholesterol and lower your "good" cholesterol.

These fats are mostly found in snack foods and desserts. Many fast food restaurants use these fats for frying.

If a food has these fats, the amount will be listed on the label under total fat. They are measured in grams. Look for foods that have no trans fats or are low in them (1 gram or less).

Food Label Guide for Candy

Sodium is the main ingredient of salt. This number is important for people who are trying to get less salt in their diet. If a label  says that a food has 100 mg of sodium, this means it has about 250 mg of salt. You should eat less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Ask your doctor if you should have less.

The % daily value is included on the label as a guide.

The percentage for each item on the label is based on eating 2,000 calories a day. Your goals will be different if you eat more or less calories a day. A dietitian or your doctor can help you set your own nutrition goals.

References

American Heart Association Nutrition Committee; Lichtenstein AH, Appel LJ, Brands M, Carnethon M, Daniels S, et al. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation. 2006 Jul 4;114(1):82-96.  

Heimburger DC. Nutrition’s interface with health and disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 220.

Mozaffarian D. Nutrition and cardiovascular disease. In: Bonow RO, Mann DL, Zipes DP, LibbyP, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders; 2011:chap 48. 

Updated: 9/6/2012

David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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