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Deciphering Food Labels

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March 2007
Deciphering Food Labels

Fat free, low fat, low calorie, low sugar, sugar free, low cholesterol, cholesterol free- with all the "healthy" food choices available to attract consumers, and in a country where quick fix meals are prevalent it's no wonder that we are mislead by attractive packaging and cleaver wording. Even though a food may be low in fat, it could be high in sugar and calories. And "low cholesterol" doesn't necessarily mean "low fat". Paying close attention to food labels can not only provide you with information about the food product but also nutrition facts about what your family is eating.

Serving size: The nutritional value of each product is written according to serving size. If a serving size is for one cup and you eat two, all the information on the label must be doubled to get accurate values. Ask yourself how many servings you are consuming and then calculate accurate values.

% Daily Value: These are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Most people don't know how much they consume so this is just a reference to help determine whether a food is high or low in a nutrient. A daily value of 5% or less in a serving is considered low for nutrients. When consuming products such as fats, cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium, make sure the daily value is no more than 5%. A daily value of 20% or more is considered high for nutrients. Look for 20%DV or more for vitamins, minerals and fiber (not for fats, sodium and cholesterol). Note that no %DV is listed for trans-fats, sugars and protein.

Calories and Calories from Fat: A calorie is a unit of energy that measure how much energy a food provides to the body. Most of us consume more calories than we need. On the average, women consume 1,800-2000 calories a day and men consume around 2,500/day. Calories from fat are just that- the number of calories that come from fat. Remember, the number of servings you consume determines the total number of calories you eat. To stay healthy, choose foods that have a big difference in the total calories and the calories that come from fat.

Total Fat: This tells the total grams of fat in a single serving of food. Fats are an important source of energy and is required by our body everyday, however, too much of it can cause obesity and other health problems. Total fat intake should be no more than 30% of your total calories. A product that has 3 grams or less of total fat (per serving) is considered low fat. Saturated fat: This is the bad fat that can raise blood cholesterol and increase your risk of getting heart disease. This number should be close to 0%. Trans-fat: Another bad fat. As of last year, all food labels are required to report trans-fats by the FDA. However, if a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat, per serving, it can be reported as "trans fat free". This is why it's important to pay close attention to how many servings you are eating, because if you eat several servings, the trans fats could add up even if it is a product labeled "trans-fat free"! Aim for 0% here. Cholesterol: The body needs some cholesterol to function, but too much of cholesterol can lead to heart disease. Eat less than 300mg per day.

Sodium: The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. However, most of us easily consume around 4000- 5000mg/day! Keep a tally of how your sodium mg adds up each day.

Carbohydrates: Most Asian Indians follow a diet very high in carbohydrates. About 350 grams are recommended daily.

Dietary fiber: We need about 25 grams/day of dietary fiber and most of us don't get enough of this.

Sugars: There is no daily value established for sugars. This should be limited. 3-5 grams of sugar per serving is considered low whereas 45 grams of sugar in a serving is considered very high.

Protein: Most Asian Indians consume low amounts of protein. Approximately 50- 70 grams depending on body size or 12%- 20% of caloric intake is recommended.

Vitamins & Minerals: Food labels also provide information on important nutrients that should be consumed in greater amounts. Remember that 5% DV or less contributes little to the daily total whereas, 20%DVor more contributes a lot.

*Percent Daily Values? : This statement is required to be on all food labels and it will always be the same. Since it shows the recommended dietary allowance for all Americans, it does not change from product to product.

What do you think? Is the displayed food label for a healthy food? Would you buy this product for your family? Don't get enticed into buying packaged foods by just looking at the front of the product, instead get savvy flip it over, and decipher the label!

--Aarti Patel


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