Are you confused and frustrated by the grams and percentages on the back of your food packages? You are not alone trying to decode all the information from the bread and juice bottle trying to decide which one is the best for you and your family. We all look at those information for different reasons; some people are focused on calories mainly for weight management while other are interested in fat, cholesterol, and sodium for their heart health. It is really important for everyone to understand the basics of the Nutrition Facts Panel, the meaning of health claims, terms and symbols on food packaging, and how to use that information to identify healthy choices.
- Start with the serving size and servings per container: Serving size and servings per container may sound the same but they are two different things. Serving size refers to the size of a single serving in that package while serving per container means the total number of servings in that entire package. Always pay attention to the amount per serving and how many servings you’re really consuming if you eat the whole package. If you double the servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients.
In simple terms, the above cookie package has total 14 cookies (serving size * servings per container) but the serving size is 2 cookies, which provides 110 calories, 2 grams of fats, and 12 grams of sugar.
If you eat the entire cookie package (14 cookies), you will get 770 calories (serving per container * calories per serving), 14 grams of fats, and 84 grams of sugar.
- Limit these nutrients: American Heart Association recommends limiting total fat, cholesterol, and sodium as they affect cardiovascular health. Fat is an important nutrient that your body uses for growth and development, but you don’t want to eat too much. The different kinds of fat, such as saturated (bad fat), unsaturated (good fat), and trans fat, will be listed separately on the label.
- If most of the fat content comes from healthy unsaturated fat, you’re probably good to go. If the fat is mainly saturated and/or the product has any trans fat, put it back on the shelf. Trans fat has been shown to increase levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol while decreasing levels of “good” HDL cholesterol—a double health whammy. Sometimes a product may list 0 grams (g) trans fat but because of a labeling loophole, a product can contain up to 0.5g trans fat per serving and say it has none. Also, if the ingredient list says partially hydrogenated oil or shortening then it has trans fat.
- Unless your doctor has given you a specific limit, you should limit your sodium (salt) to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day. That is less than 1 teaspoon of salt a day, including all the salt you eat in foods you cook or in packaged foods. Make sure you look at the serving sizes. If you eat two servings, you will get twice the amount of sodium listed on the label. Opt for low sodium or no salt add products when available to cut down your sodium intake.
- There’s a growing consensus among nutrition scientists that cholesterol in food has little effect on the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream. However, the current recommendation from American Heart Association is to eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day (and less than 200 milligrams per day if you have heart disease).
- Sugar is listed as a part of total carbohydrate, which includes both natural and added sugars. Natural sugars (such as lactose in milk and fructose in fruit) are not usually a problem because they come in small doses and are packed with other nutrients, which helps slow absorption.
- Get enough of nutrients such as fiber, vitamin/minerals.
- Listed under total carbohydrate, dietaryfiber itself has no calories and is a necessary part of a healthy diet. High-fiber diets promote bowel regularity, may help reduce the risk of colon cancer and can help reduce cholesterol levels.
- The Daily Value (DV) is the amount of each nutrient that’s considered sufficient for most healthy adults. A food that contains anywhere from 10 percent to 19 percent of the DV is considered a good source of a nutrient.
- Taking a quick glance at an ingredient list is a good way to know exactly what packaged food contains. Sometimes a product may contain very little calories, no sugar or fats but it could filled with hard to pronounce chemicals and preservatives that are not good for you. Always remember that the ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance. The first two or three ingredients are the ones that matter most. Ingredients at the bottom of the list may appear in only very tiny amounts.