Making Sense of Nutrition Labels

When it comes to choosing the right foods for your family, the nutrition label can be your best friend. Learning to read and understand the information offered by the label will help you to find the foods that offer the most nutrition with the least extra ingredients your body doesn’t need.

The Basics of Food Labels

The standard food label offers certain basic information about the calories, vitamins and minerals, sugars, fiber, and fat that the food offers. The first thing to pay attention to on the label is right at the top: the serving size. A food may seem to be low calorie until you realize that the label quote calories per serving and not for the entire package. Some packages may contain ten or more servings. The label will also tell you what a serving size is, and this is what all of the nutritional information on the label is based on.

Food labels will then list the number of calories per serving, and the number of calories in the food that come from fat. Below that, the label will list the Total Fat, followed by a breakdown of saturated and trans fat. Next, you will see the amounts of Cholesterol, Sodium, and Carbohydrates, which will be broken down into dietary fiber and sugars. Finally, you will see a listing for Protein.

Beneath this main information, you will see a list of the vitamins and minerals in the food. The main four that appear on all nutrition labels are Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron. If the food does not contain any of these, you may instead see a message to this effect.

Next to each of the listed components of the food, there will be a number in grams followed by a percentage. The percentage tells you what percent of the recommended daily value of each item a serving of this food provides. Bear in mind that this is based on a 2000 calorie a day diet, and may not necessarily reflect what percentage of your daily intake the food provides. Especially for young children, whose calorie intake is much lower than an adults, these numbers can be misleading.

Finally, you will see an ingredients list that shows everything that went into the food, listed in order of how much of each was added. You will also see a warning regarding any potential allergens in the food.

What to Look for in a Healthy Food

The numbers that should really concern you when reading food labels are those under fat, sugar, sodium and fiber. Depending on the food you are choosing, fiber may be one of the most important considerations. Watch for foods that contain no trans fat, low saturated fat, and low sodium. You will also want low sugar, but high fiber. Not every food will contain a lot of each vitamin or minerals, but some foods are naturally high in certain nutrients, while others have been enriched with extra nutrients.

When reading the ingredients list, you might not be able to pronounce everything you see. Obviously, the less ingredients, the more natural the food and the healthier it is likely to be. Not every food additive is dangerous and some are even natural, but the more additives and preservatives in a food, the less healthy it is likely to be.

Of course, the healthiest foods don’t even have labels – fresh fruits and vegetables provide a great source of nutrition, so choose as many of those foods as you can for the freshest, healthiest source of good nutrition.

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