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The Food Label

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People look at food labels for different reasons. But whatever the reason, many consumers would like to know how to use this information more effectively and easily. The following guide is will help you to use nutrition labels to make quick, informed food choices that contribute to a healthy diet.

The Nutrition Facts Panel

The first place to start when you look at the Nutrition Facts panel is the serving size and the number of servings in the package (green). Serving sizes are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams. Serving sizes are based on the amount of food people typically eat, which makes them realistic and easy to compare to similar foods.

Pay attention to the serving size, including how many servings there are in the food package, and compare it to how much YOU actually eat. The size of the serving on the food package influences all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. In the sample label above, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals one cup. If you ate the whole package, you would eat two cups. That doubles the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the % Daily Values.

Calories and Calories from Fat

Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food. The label also tells you how many of the calories in one serving come from fat. In the example, there are 250 calories in a serving of this macaroni and cheese. How many calories from fat are there in ONE serving? Answer: 110 calories, which means almost half come from fat. What if you ate the whole package content? Then, you would consume two servings, or 500 calories, and 220 would come from fat.

The Nutrients

The top section in the sample nutrition label shows nutrients that are important for your health and separates them into two main groups. The nutrients listed first are the ones Americans generally eat in adequate amounts, or even too much. They are identified in yellow on the chart as Limit these Nutrients. Eating too much fat or too much sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure. Eating too many calories is linked to overweight and obesity.

Americans often don't get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets. They are identified in blue on the chart as Get Enough of these Nutrients. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. For example, getting enough calcium can reduce the risk of osteoporosis, in which bones become brittle and break as one ages.

The Percent Daily Value (%DV)

This part of the Nutrition Facts panel (orange) tells you whether the nutrients (fat, sodium, fiber, etc) in a serving of food contribute a lot or a little to your total daily diet. Percent DVs are based on recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet. For labeling purposes, FDA set 2,000 calories as the reference amount for calculating %DVs. The %DV shows you how much of the recommended daily amount of a nutrient is in a serving of food. By using the %DV, you can tell if this amount is high or low. You may not know exactly how many calories you consume in a day, but the %DV can provide a frame of reference, whether or not you eat more or less than 2,000 calories each day.

The label also helps you interpret the numbers (grams and milligrams) by putting them all on the same scale (0-100%DV), much like a ruler. This way you can tell high from low and know which nutrients contribute a lot, or a little, to your daily recommended allowance (upper or lower). The Quick Guide will tell you that 5%DV or less of a nutrient is low and 20%DV or more is high. This means that 5%DV or less is low for all nutrients, those you want to limit (e.g., fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium), and those that you want to consume in greater amounts (fiber, calcium, etc). As the Quick Guide shows, 20%DV or more is high for all nutrients.

Example: Look at the amount of Total Fat in one serving listed on the sample nutrition label for macaroni and cheese. Is 18%DV contributing a lot or a little to your maximum fat limit of 100% DV? Check the Quick Guide and see that 18%DV, which is below 20%DV, is not yet high, but what if you ate the whole package (two servings)? You would double that amount, eating 36% of your daily allowance for Total Fat. That amount, coming from just one food, would contribute a lot of fat to your daily diet. It would leave you 64% of your fat allowance for all of the other foods you eat that day.

Sugars and Protein: Note that neither Sugars nor Protein lists a %DV on the Nutrition Facts panel. No daily reference value has been established because no recommendations have been made for the total amount of sugars to eat in a day. Keep in mind; the sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts panel include naturally occurring sugars (like those in fruit and milk) as well as those added to a food or drink. Check the ingredient list for specifics on added sugars. For protein, a %DV is required to be listed if a claim is made for protein, such as "high in protein." Otherwise, unless the food is meant for use by infants and children under 4 years old, none is needed. Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern for most adults and children over 4 years of age.

The Footnote, or lower part of the Nutrition Facts Panel

Note the * used after the heading "%Daily Value" on the Nutrition Facts panel. It refers to the Footnote in the lower part of the nutrition label, which tells you that "%DVs are based on recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet." This statement must be on all food labels. But the remaining information in the full footnote may not be on the package if the size of the label is too small. When the full footnote does appear, it will always be the same. It doesn't change from product to product, because it shows dietary advice for all Americans–it is not about a specific food product.

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