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Comprehending Food Labels

Nutrients on the Label
The specific nutrients listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel were selected because of their relationship to current health issues. Nutrients that are required on all food labels include total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugar, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Manufacturers can add additional nutrients, but the ones listed are required, Americans generally consume too much of the first four nutrients on the list.

The total fat content consists of both types of fat: saturated and unsaturated (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated). Under total fat, these fats are separated out. Only saturated fat is required to be listed; unsaturated can be listed but is not required. Saturated fat is required because people should be aware of their intake. Lowering your intake of saturated fat can decrease your risk of heart disease.

Cholesterol and sodium are the other two nutrients that most Americans generally consume too much of. Lowering cholesterol can benefit heart health, and for some people, lowering sodium can help decrease the risk for high blood pressure. Both of these nutrients are measured in milligrams.

Fact: Most Americans do not get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, or iron. Including enough of these nutrients in your daily diet can help improve health and reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions.

The two vitamins and minerals on the list are referenced as Reference Daily Intakes (RDIs). The RDI values are established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are used only on food labels. Initially the values on food labels were based on the highest 1968 RDA for each nutrient, to ensure that needs for all groups were met. RDI replaces the term "U.S. RDA," which was introduced in 1973 as a label reference value for vitamins, minerals, and protein in voluntary nutrition labeling. The name change was completed because of confusion that existed over U.S. RDAs -- the FDA values used on food labels -- and RDAs. The RDIs were put into effect when the new food labels emerged in 1992.

The food label should be used to help limit those nutrients you should cut back on, and to increase those nutrients you should consume more of.

Percent Daily Value
The nutrients on food labels are expressed in two distinct ways: in terms of the amount by weight per serving, using grams or milligrams, or in terms of Percent Daily Value. The Percent Daily Value is an estimate of how a serving of the food meets the daily requirement for each nutrient, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. This is meant to help you decide whether a specific nutrient in a serving of food contributes a lot or a little to your total daily intake. Your daily goal should be to meet 100 percent or less of the daily value for nutrients; you should be consuming less fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, and cholesterol. Likewise, your goal should be to get at least 100 percent or more of nutrients you should be consuming more of, such as fiber, complex carbohydrates, calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C.

Alert! Be careful not to be confused by Percent Daily Values. The value does not indicate how much a nutrient is in a food. It simply means how the food, per serving, compares to your total daily nutritional intake. For example, if a food states 5 percent daily value for fat, that does not mean there is 5 percent fat in the product. It does mean that the product is using up 5 percent of your daily fat needs for the day.

Personalized Calorie Levels
If you consume less or more than 2,000 calories, the daily value can be adjusted for your specific calorie level. Use the table below to find out how you can adjust the total Percent Daily Values for specific calorie levels. If you were on a 1,600-calorie diet -- 20 percent less than the standard 2,000 calories -- you would figure your daily value to total only 80 percent for the day, a 20-percent reduction. The nutrients you would adjust are total fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, and dietary fiber. Cholesterol and sodium are always the same amount, no matter how many calories you ingest, so figure for these to always add up to 100 percent each day.

Adjusted Percent Daily Value for Specific Calorie Levels

CaloriesAdjusted Percent Daily Value
1,40070 percent
1,60080 percent
2,000100 percent
2,200110 percent
2,500125 percent
2,800140 percent
3,200160 percent

To find out your recommended amounts for certain nutrients for your personalized calorie intake, follow the values in the table below.

Even though you may not know exactly how many calories you eat in a day, you can still use the Percent Daily Value as a frame of reference.

Nutrient Calories*
1,400 1,600 2,000 2,200 2,500 2,800 3,200
Total Fat (g) 47 53 65 73 80 93 107
Saturated Fat (g) 16 18 20 24 25 31 36
Cholesterol (mg) 300 300 300 300 300 300 300
Sodium (mg) 2,400 2,400 2,400 2,400 2,400 2,400 2,400
Total Carbohydrate (g) 210 240 300 330 375 420 480
Dietary Fiber** (g) 20 20 25 25 30 32 37

*These calorie levels may not apply to children and adolescents, who have changing calorie requirements. For specific advice concerning personal calorie levels, consult your doctor or a registered dietitian.

**20 grams is the minimum amount of fiber recommended for all calorie levels below 2,000.

Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly A. Tessmer. Excerpted from The Everything Nutrition Book: Boost Energy, Prevent Illness, and Live Longer with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

To order this book visit Amazon.com.


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