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Comprehending Food Labels

Ingredient Lists
Food label information is not limited to health claims, nutritional claims, nutritional content, or daily value. Ingredients must also be listed on packaged foods that contain more than one ingredient. Ingredients are listed by weight, from most to least, to help give you an idea of how specific ingredients compare with others in proportion.

The ingredient label is vital to people who are allergic to certain foods and/or additives. To help these people avoid problem ingredients, the ingredient list must include the following, when appropriate:

  • FDA-certified color additives, such as FD&C Blue No. 1, by name.
  • Sources of protein hydrolysates, which are used in many foods as flavors and flavor enhancers.
  • Declaration of caseinate as a milk derivative in the ingredient list of foods that claim to be nondairy, such as coffee whiteners.
If you or your child has a food allergy or sensitivity, it is essential to identify what is safe to eat by searching the listed ingredients on a packaged food label. Specific questions about products should be directed to the food manufacturer. Most manufacturers offer a toll-free phone number that you can use to get specific questions answered.

Tips on the Food Label
It is important to use the food label for a number of reasons. It takes some practice, but once you begin to make reading the label a habit, it is hard not to use it. Keep these tips in mind when reading food labels:

  • Read the serving size. The FDA requires that serving sizes reflect amounts customarily consumed for a food item and mandates that all like products use the same serving size. Remember also that all of the information pertains to that serving size.
  • Determine the total calories per serving. To get a general idea of fat, take a look at how many of those calories per serving are coming from fat. Remember that there are only three nutrients that make up calories in food: fat, carbohydrate, and protein. So what is not fat is coming from protein and/or carbohydrate.
  • Take a look at total fat content, but remember that it is also important to look at what type of fat is in the product. Determine the ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fat or, if provided, the ratio of saturated fat to polyunsaturated fat to monounsaturated fat. Your daily accumulated ratio should consist of no more than 33 percent from saturated fat.
  • Determine whether your cholesterol intake is less than the budgeted 300 mg per day, and check to see if you have balanced out your day to fit the food in.
  • Determine whether your sodium intake is less than the budgeted 2,400 mg per day, and check to see if you have balanced out your day to fit the food in.
  • Determine total carbohydrates, and check to see how much of the total is coming from sugar, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. Whenever possible, choose foods that are higher in fiber and complex carbohydrates and lower in sugar.
  • Don't overlook your vitamins and minerals. If you are choosing orange juice, for example, choose the one highest in vitamin C and the one that has been fortified with calcium. Pack in extra nutrition whenever you can!


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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