LRH Dietitian Tells How to Read a Food Label
Reading food labels can be challenging even for the savviest of shoppers. The food label is another word for the black and white box called Nutrition Facts on the package of food products. You may ask yourself: Why does this small package say 2 ˝ servings when it is packaged as an individual serving? Is 15 grams of fat too much in a food product? Is 800 mg of sodium too much for one meal, like in a TV dinner? Why does regular skim milk have 11 grams of sugars? Lakes Regional Healthcare (LRH) Registered Dietitian Beth Samuelson offers the following suggestions for reading food labels.
Serving Size and Servings Per Container
Samuelson said, “One package often contains more than one serving. Look at the serving size and how many servings you are actually consuming.” She pointed out that if you are eating double the servings, you double the calories and nutrients, including the percent daily values (DV). When you compare calories and nutrients between brands, check to see if the serving size is the same between brands.
The number calories per serving and number of calories from fat per serving are found in this section of the food label. “Remember, fat-free doesn’t mean calorie free. Lower fat items may have just as many calories as full-fat versions. Each of us has different caloric needs to maintain our body weight. More than 400 calories of a single food, not a meal, is too high for most people. The food label uses 2000 calories per day as the standard calorie requirement based on a 150-pound person being moderately active. Aim for about 700 calories per meal if you eat three meals per day to maintain your weight. Consume less if you want to lose weight,” said Samuelson.
Percent Daily Value
This section tells whether the nutrients (total fat, sodium, dietary fiber, etc.) in one serving of food contribute a little or a lot to your total daily diet. At the end of the day, the percent daily values can be added to see if too many or too few of the nutrients were consumed.
Total Fat and Cholesterol
To help reduce risk of heart disease, select foods lower in fat, especially saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol. According to Samuelson, trans fat does not have a daily value and because it increases your risk of heart disease, you should consume as close to zero grams as possible. To help lower blood cholesterol, replace foods high in saturated fat and trans fat with the healthier fats called polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. Samuelson said, “Try to limit your total fat grams to 65 per day or about 21 grams per meal if you eat three meals per day. Eating 15 grams of more of fat in a single food item makes it difficult to control your total fat intake per day.”
Sodium should be limited to 2400 milligrams (mg) per day or about 800 mg per meal if three meals are eaten per day. Samuelson said, “For perspective, one teaspoon of salt has about 2000 mg of sodium. If you choose to eat a high sodium food at one meal (>800 mg), you will have to be very careful at the other two meals to stay within your sodium budget.”
Diets high in potassium or at least 4700 mg per day (like the DASH diet) have been shown to have heart protective benefits. However, Samuelson said your physician may tell you to eat less potassium if you have certain diseases such as kidney disease.
Fibers and sugars are types of carbohydrates and are listed separately on the food label. Healthy sources like fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease and improve digestive functioning. “The term “sugars” can be confusing. Milk, for example, has 11 grams of sugars listed per cup even though milk has no sugar added to it unless it is chocolate milk. Milk has a type of sugar called lactose already present. No percent daily value for sugars is set for this reason. Always read the ingredient list to determine if additional sweeteners have been added, which add calories but not many other nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. Added sugars on the ingredient list may use names like sucrose, glucose, corn or maple syrup, agave nectar, cane sugar, molasses, and honey. With fiber, aim for at least 25 grams daily. Most Americans could benefit from more fiber in their diet,” said Samuelson.
When choosing a food for its protein content, make sure the choices are low in fat and sodium, such as lean meat and poultry, dried beans, and fat-free dairy.
Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron
Most Americans do not get enough of these nutrients that may improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions.
Footnote with Daily Values (DVs)
The DVs are listed for people who need 2000 or 2500 calories each day. Some people may need more and some may need less. The amounts for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium are maximum amounts. Samuelson said, “Try to stay below the amounts listed. Dietary fiber is listed as a minimum amount, so try to eat up to the listed amount.”
For more information about food labels or to schedule a nutritional consultation with Samuelson, call her at 712-336-8785 or contact your local physician.