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Food Labels and the FDA

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Food Labels
Each food label includes the %DV (percent daily value), indicating the amount one serving contains of saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. It is always wise to be aware of amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet, especially if you are at risk of heart disease or have high cholesterol. If you have high blood pressure, you also need to limit your sodium intake. As an exercising woman without risks of heart disease or high blood pressure, you probably do not need to restrict sodium intake, as it is lost easily through sweat, and you can be more liberal with fat and cholesterol.

The FDA has also set standards for foods that make claims to their fat-, calorie-, and sugar-free content. "Calorie-free" means less than 5 calories per serving, and "sugar-free" and "fat-free" mean less than .5 g per serving. For other common terms on food labels, see the following chart.

Labeling Terms

  • Low saturated fat = 1 g or less per serving
  • Low sodium = 140 mg or less per serving
  • Very low sodium = 35 mg or less
  • Low cholesterol = 20 mg or less and 2 g or less of saturated fat
  • Low calorie = 40 cal or less
Fat and Cholesterol Content of Meat, Poultry, and Seafood, per 100 g serving
  • Lean = less than 10 g total fat, 4.5 g or less saturated fat, less than 95 mg cholesterol
  • Extra lean = less than 5 g total fat, less than 2 g saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol
Other Common Labeling Terms
  • High = contains 20 percent or more of the %DV of a nutrient
  • Good source = contains 10 to 19 percent of the %DV of a nutrient
  • Reduced/less/fewer = 25 percent less fat/sodium/sugar/calories than the regular product
  • Light = one-third fewer calories or half the fat or sodium in low-cal or low-fat product
  • Healthy = low in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and contain at least 90% of %DV vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.
Calcium is a very important reason to read labels. Note that a "good source" is a very misleading term, as these foods are only required to contain 10 percent of the Reference Daily Intake, 100 mg. For active athletic women, the actual recommended intake of calcium should be at least 1,200 mg a day, so do not think that because you ate a "good source" of calcium that your calcium needs have been met. You would actually need to eat 12 "good sources" a day to meet all your calcium requirements!

Also, there are some food labels that claim that the food lowers risk of coronary heart disease. This means that the food is low in both overall and saturated fat and cholesterol and essentially qualifys as "extra lean." Food labels that claim to lower cancer risks include foods that are low in saturated fat and are also a "good source" of fiber or vitamins A or C. The FDA also has requirements for restaurants that make claims to have healthful foods, providing guidelines and standards for their meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates meat and poultry products.

Supplements are not regulated by FDA; therefore, there are no requirements or standards to establish or measure safety, effect, or potency. You are more likely to find a safer supplement by buying a product made by a company that makes other FDA-regulated products (such as a large drug company) or has a USP label. The USP (United States Pharmocopeia) is a governing body that regulates the safety and efficacy of supplements. You can also go to www.consumerlab.com to see a safety rating on many supplements.

The best recommendation is to eat a minimum of four servings of fruits, four vegetables, four dairy, three protein (tofu, nuts, meat, fish), two whole grains, three fats, and four breads daily. You should drink at least eight, 8-ounce glasses of water, juice, or sport drinks. If you can do this, you will meet all your nutritional needs. Taking one multivitamin daily along with one calcium supplement will balance any nutrients you might have missed during the day. If you have questions or want to try to improve your nutrition, consult with your doctor and a nutritionist. Your efforts will be rewarded as you start to notice yourself feeling healthier and stronger, thinking clearer, and performing better. Your disease and cancer risks will go down. You will feel healthy and fit, inside and out!

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From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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