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Food Smarts: Understanding Food Labels

Look before you lunch! Scan before you snack! Get in the habit of checking out a food's Nutrition Facts box before you start scarfing it up.

Food companies are actually required by law to give you the plain facts about what you're about to eat. But since no food company will ever say something like, "This food is bad for you! Choose something healthier!", it takes some practice to read these labels and know what you're looking at.


Topics on
Food Smarts:
What's In You?
The Food Pyramid
Serving Size Surprises
Understanding Food
    Labels
The Choices Are
    Yours
Myths And Facts
Real World Tips
    and Tricks
Family Eating Habits
From the Mentors
Take the example of a snack-sized bag of "hot and spicy" crunchy cheese snacks. The bag is 2 and 1/8 ounces (60.2 grams) and about the size of a paperback book. Here's the Nutrition Facts label from the back of the bag:

Nutrition Facts Label

Let's go down the label and look at each section.
  1. Serving Size: 1 oz. Located at the top of the label, this tells you the amount of food used to measure all the other numbers on the label. The serving size for this food is 1 ounce, which equals about 21 cheese crunchies.

  2. Servings Per Container: About 2. This tells you how many servings are in the bag. In this case, it says "about 2," but since the serving size is 1 ounce, and the bag is over 2 ounces, a little math will tell you that there are really MORE than two servings in the bag. Okay, so what does it mean? Well, since most people will eat the whole bag of snacks (it's a small bag after all) and the numbers listed only apply to one ounce (half the bag), that means you're really getting TWICE as much as the label says! So if the label says 170 calories per serving, and you eat the whole bag, you're really eating 340 calories!

    Remember: A lot of food companies will make their food servings small so it looks like the food is healthier than it really is. Make sure you always look at how many servings are in a bag, box, or can of food BEFORE you look at the rest of the numbers. Depending on how much of the food you eat, you may have to double or triple the numbers on the label.

  3. Calories: One Serving, 170 (Whole Bag, 340). A calorie is a unit of energy, and different foods contain different amounts of calories. The average person needs about 2,000 calories to have enough energy for the day, and extra calories are usually stored as body fat. Since this snack has 340 calories per bag, eating the bag will account for 17% of all the calories you should eat in the day. That seems like an awful lot for a little bag of snacks!

  4. Calories from Fat: One Serving, 110 (Whole Bag, 220). This tells you how many of the food's calories come from fat. In this case, 110 of the 170 calories in a serving of the cheese crunchies come from fat. That's a lot-almost 65%! The experts say you should only get about 30% of your daily calories from fat, which means this snack is very high in fat and probably not something you want to eat very often.

The next section of the label lists the amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins and minerals this snack offers, compared to how much of these things you need each day. When reading these amounts, you should pay more attention to the percentages than to the grams. If a food has:

  • 5% or less of a nutrient, it's considered a poor source of that nutrient.
  • 10-20% of your daily recommended amount of a nutrient, it's a good source of that nutrient.
  • More than 20%, it's high in that nutrient.

Let's look at a few important listings from this label.

  1. Total Fat: One Serving, 17% (Whole Bag, 34%). We need some fat in our diets, because it's important for our skin and organs and a good source of energy. But too much fat can lead to weight gain and all the health problems that come with being overweight. If you eat this bag of cheese crunchies as a snack, you're getting 22 grams of fat, which represents 34% (over one third!) of a 2,000 calorie diet. Since you'll probably be getting fat from other sources during the day, this is probably too much from a small bag of snacks. This food is obviously high in fat, so it's not a smart snack choice. Remember to also check amounts and percentages of Saturated Fat and Trans Fat. These are types of fat than can be bad for you and lead to clogged arteries and heart problems, so you want to see small amounts and small percentages of these on most of your food labels.

  2. Sodium: One Serving, 10% (Whole Bag, 20%). Sodium is basically the same as salt. Your body needs sodium in very small amounts, but too much can be unhealthy. Because sodium is added to many foods already, most of us get way more sodium than we need. In the case of these cheese crunchies, this one small bag contains 20% of the sodium you should get in a day, which means it's got a whole lot of salt for such a tiny amount of food.

  3. Total Carbohydrates: One Serving, 5% (Whole Bag, 10%). Your body needs plenty of carbohydrates for energy. This bag of cheese crunchies gives you 10% of the carbs you need in the day, so it looks like it's a good source of them. But when you look at the label as a whole, you will see that to get these carbs, you also have to eat lots of calories, gobs of fat, and tons of salt. It would be much smarter to get your carbohydrates from healthier sources, like whole wheat bread or pasta, without so much fat and salt.

  4. Sugars: One Serving, 0 grams (Whole Bag, 0 grams). "Simple sugars" like processed sugar added to snacks and candies should be eaten in very small amounts, because they contain a lot of calories and don't offer a lot of good things to your body. This bag of cheese crunchies has no sugar at all, because it gets its flavor from salt instead. The best snack would be one that is low in both sodium AND sugar.

  5. Protein: One Serving, 2 grams (Whole Bag, 4 grams). Protein is important to your body, especially the muscles, and provides energy. 10-20% of your daily calories should come from protein. These crunchies have very little protein, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you get your protein from other food during the day.

  6. Vitamins and Minerals (various amounts). The bottom of the Nutrition Facts label lists some important vitamins and minerals that your body needs, and the percentages offered by this particular food. If you look at the list, you'll see that this bag of cheese crunchies is not a good source for any of them.
So what has this Nutrition Facts Label told us?

  • To put it plainly, the Nutrition Facts Label has told us that this bag of cheese crunchies is nothing but "empty calories." This means that the food has a lot of calories (340 calories for just over 2 ounces of food!) and doesn't offer much good stuff for your body.

  • It's low in a lot of the things that are good for your body (like protein, vitamins, and minerals), and high in a lot of the things that can be bad for your body (like fats and sodium).

Remember: In general, when you read Nutrition Facts Labels, you should be looking for foods that are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and low in sugar, sodium, cholesterol, and fats (especially saturated fat and trans fat).

Before we move on, let's consider another label that's found on all foods: the Ingredient List.

  • First things first: In any list, the biggest ingredients must be listed at the top. Beware of foods that start out with sugars (like sugar, corn syrup, and sucrose), fats and oils (vegetable oil, soybean oil), and salt. If these ingredients appear early in the ingredient list, the food is probably not a good choice.

  • Shorter is better: In many cases, the longer an ingredient is, the less natural and good for you the food is. Look for foods that have a short ingredient list with natural-sounding ingredients. If the ingredients are nothing but chemical names a hundred letters long, the food might be one to skip.

Okay, now you have all the basic facts. Ready to start eating healthier? In the next section, see how The Choices Are Yours!

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