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Fitness and Nutrition

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Food labels and more

finger pointing to the nutrition label on the back of food packaging

This section tells you about tools you can use to find out what's in the food you eat. You can use these tools to make healthy food choices.

The Nutrition Facts label

You've probably seen the Nutrition Facts label on many food packages. The label states how many calories and how much saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, and other nutrients are in each serving.

Here are the key steps for using the Nutrition Facts label:

  • Check the serving size and number of servings. The serving size for a food is based on the amount of that food that people usually eat at one time. Serving sizes are standardized for similar kinds of food so that you can compare the nutritional value of these foods. So, for instance, all cans of peaches should have the same serving size.
  • Pay attention to the number of calories. On the label, you'll find the number of calories per serving and the number of calories from fat in each serving.
  • The Nutrition Facts label shows the % (percentage) Daily Value (% DV) of certain nutrients contained in one serving of the food. The % DVs are based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories. You may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day. Still, the % DVs gives you a general idea of whether a food is low or high in a certain nutrient. Five percent or less is low; 20 percent or more is high.
  • Look for foods that are low in total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Trans fat doesn't have a % DV. But you should eat as little of it as possible.
  • Look for foods that are high in dietary fiber.
  • Look for foods that are high in potassium, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. Some food labels also show % DVs for other vitamins and minerals. You'll want to choose foods that are high in those nutrients as well.
  • When choosing a food for its protein content (such as red meat, poultry, dry beans, milk, and milk products), choose those that are lean, low-fat, or fat free.

How to read a food label

 

Pay attention to food ingredients

Besides the Nutrition Facts label, most food packages also have an ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in order by weight.

  • If you're trying to avoid foods with a lot of added sugar, limit foods that list added sugars as the first few ingredients.
  • If you're trying to increase your fiber intake, choose foods with a whole grain, such as whole wheat, listed as the first ingredient. Other whole grains are whole oats, oatmeal, whole-grain corn, popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, whole rye, whole-grain barley, buckwheat, triticale, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, quinoa, and sorghum.

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Other labels on foods you eat

Some foods have labels such as "fat-free," "reduced calorie," or "light." Below are some useful definitions for you.

Calorie terms:

  • Low-calorie – 40 calories or less per serving
  • Reduced-calorie – at least 25 percent fewer calories per serving when compared with a similar food
  • Light or lite – one-third fewer calories; if more than half the calories are from fat, fat content must be reduced by 50 percent or more

Sugar terms:

  • Sugar-free – less than 1/2 gram sugar per serving
  • Reduced sugar – at least 25 percent less sugar per serving when compared with a similar food

Fat terms:

  • Fat-free or 100 percent fat free – less than 1/2 gram fat per serving
  • Low-fat – 3 grams or less per serving
  • Reduced-fat – at least 25 percent less fat when compared with a similar food

It's important to remember that fat-free doesn't mean calorie free. People tend to think they can eat as much as they want of fat-free foods. Even if you cut fat from your diet but consume more calories than you use, you will gain weight. Also, fat-free or low-fat foods may contain high amounts of added sugars or sodium to make up for the loss of flavor when fat is removed. For example, a fat-free muffin may be just as high in calories as a regular muffin. So, remember, it is important to read your food labels and compare products.

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How to find the nutrient content of foods that don't have labels

When you get a pound of salmon in the meat department of your grocery store, it doesn't come with a Nutrition Facts label. The same goes for the fresh apples or eggplants that you get in the produce department. How do you find out the nutrient content of these foods?

You can use the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database. This is a bit harder than using the Nutrition Facts label. But by comparing different foods you can get an idea if a food is high or low in saturated fat, sodium, and other nutrients. To compare lots of different foods at one time, check out the USDA's Nutrient Lists.

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More information on food labels and more

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Content last updated: June 17, 2008.

Resources last updated: September 25, 2013.

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