The most important and reliable information on the label
can be found on the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient listing.
Here is the information that's most essential:
- Calories. Despite all the talk about carbs and
fat, calories are what counts for weight control. So the first thing to look
for on a label is the number of calories per serving. The FDA's new Calories
Count program aims to make calorie information on labels easier to find by
putting it in larger, bolder type.
- Serving size and number of servings per
container. This information is critical to understanding everything else
on the label. My daughter was horrified when she realized that the ice-cream
sandwich she regularly ate had twice the calories she thought it did. Her
confusion arose because some manufacturers take what most of us would
consider a single-serve container and call it two servings, hoping the
numbers on the label will look better to consumers.
- Dietary Fiber. It helps fill you up, and you
need at least 25 grams daily. To be considered high in fiber, a food must
contain least 5 grams per serving. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Fat. Fat has more calories per gram than carbs
or protein, and all fats have 9 calories/gram. Choose unsaturated fats
whenever possible, and limit foods with saturated and trans fats (also
called trans fatty acids). Manufacturers are required to list the amount of
trans fat per serving starting Jan. 1, 2006, and this information is already
showing up on labels. In the meantime, look for terms such as "partially
hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated," which indicate the product contains trans
- Sodium per serving. Sodium should be restricted
to 2,300 mg per day (that's less than 1 teaspoon of salt) for healthy
adults, and 1,500 mg for those with health problems or family histories of
high blood pressure. To reduce your sodium intake, choose less processed
- Sugar. It adds plenty of calories, and is often
listed on the label in "alias" terms, like "high fructose corn syrup,"
"dextrose," "invert sugar," "turbinado," etc. Choose foods with less than 5
grams per serving to help control calories.
- % Daily Value (% DV). This reflects the
percentage of a certain nutrient that the food supplies, based on a 2,000
calorie diet. It gives you a rough idea of the food's nutrient contribution
to your diet. The nutrients highlighted in the % DV are a partial list,
limited to those of concern to the typical American.
- Ingredient List. Manufacturers are required to
list all of the ingredients contained in the product by weight. A jar of
tomato sauce with tomatoes as the first ingredient lets you know that
tomatoes are the main ingredient. The spice or herb listed last is contained
in the least amount. This information is critical for anyone who has
allergies, and for prudent shoppers who want, say, more tomatoes than water,
or whole grain as the leading ingredient.
The FDA sets specific rules for what food manufacturers can
call "light," "low," "reduced," "free," and other food terms. Here's the
low-down on interpreting these terms:
- "Healthy" food must be low in fat, with limited
cholesterol and sodium.
- Anything labeled "free" must only contain tiny amounts
of the ingredient in each serving. For example, "trans-fat free" or
"fat-free" products can have only 0.5 mg of trans fats or fat;
"cholesterol-free" foods can only have 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2
grams of saturated fat.
- A serving of a food labeled "low sodium" can have a
maximum of 140 milligrams of sodium.
- A serving of "low cholesterol" food can have a maximum
of 20 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams of saturated fat.
- One serving of a "low-fat" food can have a maximum of
3 grams of fat.
- A serving of a "low-calorie" food can have a maximum
of 40 calories.
- A serving of a food labeled "reduced" must have 25%
less of the ingredient (such as fat) than a serving of the regular version.
- One serving of a "light" food must have 50% less fat
or 1/3 fewer calories than the regular version.