The Nutrition Label: Cracking the Code

By Suzanne Parker

March 2011

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) puts forth guidelines for nutrition and fitness for Americans, including food labels. The latest guidelines, set to be released in late April, will emphasize the importance of balancing calories in and calories out via more activity in order to lose excess body fat. It’s been reported that 1/3 of our children are overweight,  and 2/3 of American adults are overweight. The bottom line is that most Americans need to trim their waistlines to avoid chronic diet-related diseases. Let’s start by being smart about our label reading!

What do the Percentages Mean?

The “percent daily value” percentage on the nutrition label gives us a reference of how  much the food you are selecting is contributing to your totals for the day. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who designs the label information, bases the numbers on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet. If your daily goal is less than 2,000 calories, then use the  percentages merely as a frame of reference – realizing you need to be below the percentage shown to stay within your own calorie target.

Take Note of the High’s and Low’s

You want the percentages to be low for items like saturated fat and sodium – if the percentage is under five in these, then that’s a good thing! For the good nutrients your body needs, like fiber, calcium, iron and vitamins; you want to look for foods that have high percentages – a good number is 20% daily value.

Track Fat and Sugars

Here is a guideline that helps you go from grams to teaspoons. For example, if you want to stay at 45g of fat per day that is equivalent to 11 teaspoons of fat per day. This chart is also a good rule of thumb for added sugars. If you are on a 1,500 calorie diet, try to stay under 37g of sugar per day. Be careful – it adds up fast! If you have one 12oz regular soda, you just drank 10 teaspoons of sugar!

Daily Calorie Intake Grams Teaspoons
1200 30 7.5
1500 37 9
1800 45 11
2100 52 13
2400 60 15
2700 67 17

Remember to note Servings vs. Portions

It is not uncommon to have multiple servings per container of food—especially a snack food that might appear to be “for one sitting”. Let your portion be guided by:

  1. How hungry you feel…STOP eating before FULL sets in.
  2. Planning ahead; gauge your calorie intake based on the “small mini meals” concept. It is smart to “save some for later”.
  3. The nutrition information on the label; for example if the food is high in fat, how many of your fat grams (or teaspoons) do you want to use up?

Quick Food Label Interpretation Guide

Start at the top with Serving Size and Servings/Container. Adjust all measurements below this point according to the serving size you will eat and your caloric intake. Look at the number of calories per serving (including how many calories are from fat). Limit total fat (including saturated and trans fat), cholesterol, and sodium. Get plenty of fiber, vitamins, calcium, and iron. Use the % Daily Value to determine what is high or low for you. 5% is low; 20% is high. This is a great way to focus on what foods help you meet your goal.

The Bottom Line

The Nutrition Label is much easier to tackle when you just break it down:

  • First: Pick foods that are minimally processed and provide balance of nutrients and look for the Highs and Lows.
  • Second: Moderation is key, so think of what your portion should be for your goal.
  • Third: Know your numbers; have a target to shoot for!

Reproduced with permission of H-E-B Grocery Co. www.heb.com

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