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How to read food labels

About Food Labels

Food labels tell you the nutrition facts about the foods you buy. Knowing how to use the information on food labels can help you choose healthier foods.

What to Look For

Pay special attention to these items on the label:

  • Serving size
  • Total carbohydrate
  • Dietary fiber
  • Calories
  • Total fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Sodium

Always check the serving size first:

  • All the information on the label is based on this specific serving size. Many packages contain 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.

Check the total carbohydrates next. It is listed in bold letters to stand out. It is measured in grams (g).

  • Sugar, starch, and dietary fiber make up the total carbohydrate listed on the label. Sugar is also listed separately. All of these carbohydrates raise your blood sugar, not just the actual sugar the food might contain.
  • If you have diabetes and count carbohydrate grams use the total carbohydrate number as the number of carbohydrate grams for this food.

Dietary fiber is listed just below total carbohydrates. Select foods that have at least 3 to 4 grams of dietary fiber per serving. Whole-grain breads, fruits and vegetables, and beans and legumes are high in fiber.

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.

Check the total fat in 1 serving. Pay special attention to the amount of saturated fat in 1 serving. See also: Dietary fats explained

  • 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, while whole milk has 5 grams of saturated fat per serving.
  • Fish is much lower in saturated fat than beef. Three ounces of fish has less than 1 gram of saturated fat, while 3 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 is allowed to say it contains no saturated fat. Remember this if you eat more than 1 serving. Two or more servings of food with 0.4 grams per servings adds up to 0.8 grams or more of saturated fat.

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

  • Trans fats are mostly found in packaged and prepared foods, such as snack foods and desserts. Many fast food restaurants use trans fats for frying.
  • If a food contains trans fats, the amount will be listed on the label under total fat. Trans fats are measured in grams. Look for foods that have no trans fats or are low in them (1 gram or less).

Sodium is the main ingredient of salt. This number is particularly important for people who are trying to limit their intake of salt through a low-salt diet. A food label that indicates 100 mg of sodium means the food has about 250 mg of salt. You should eat less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Ask your doctor if a different target is right for you.

The % Daily Value is included on the label as a guide.

  • The percentage for each item on the label is based on someone who eats 2,000 calories a day. It tells you what percentage of calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sodium (salt), and fiber are in 1 serving size of this food.
  • Your goals will be different if you eat more or less than 2,000 calories a day. A registered 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.

Krauss RM. Nutrition and cardiovascular disease. In: Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Zipes DP, eds. Libby: Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 8th ed. Saunders;2007:chap 44.

Mosca L, Banka CL, Benjamin EJ, Berra K, Bushnell C, Dolor RJ, et al. Evidence-based guidelines for cardiovascular disease prevention in women: 2007 update. Circulation. 2007 Mar 20;115(11):1481-501.


Review Date: 10/6/2010
Reviewed By: 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., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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