Food Label Basics

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By the end of this lesson you will:

  • Know which nutrients contain calories
  • Identify nutrient dense foods based on the nutrition label
  • Understand how many nutrients you are consuming based on serving sizes
  • Identify common terms printed on the food label

Why Read the Food Label?

Food

It's easy to get confused while shopping at your local grocery store.  Each product label your eye catches inevitably hits you with countless advertising slogans and nutrition terms.  Just remember the bottom line is that all these companies are basically trying to sell you something - they all want a piece of your food budget.  The package might show off “sugar free” or “fat free” but it’s the nutrition information label that’s going to tell you whether the product has just as many grams of fat or just as many calories as regular products. Most packages now have a label called “Nutrition Facts”.  This label tells you what you’re really eating.  By comparing the labels on products, you can plan a balanced diet and cut down on fat, salt, and sugar for better health.

It’s also in the nutrition information label where the manufacturer confesses its definition of a serving size.  A single serving of a Snickers candy bar is about half of the 2-oz bar.  A serving of ice cream is usually a half-cup.  A serving of some of the cookie brands is one cookie while the serving of many pot pies is half a pot pie.  The serving size of many individual or small sized frozen pizzas is 1/3 of the “small” pizza.  There are some ice cream bars labeled "reduced fat" that contain over 13 grams of fat per serving.  The moral of this story is – read your labels.  The more you know about the product, the better off you will be.

activity 1

 1. Do you currently read food labels?
      

2. If you answered yes, what nutrients do you look for on the food label? (Name at least two).




All packaged foods must have nutrition labels. Fresh fruits, vegetables and meats may not have labels, but nutrition information should be available where you purchase these items.

Some tips on how to read food labels will help you use this information to choose foods to fit your needs.

Food Label Basics

First look at the serving size. All of the nutrient information pertains to that serving size. If you eat more or less you will have to adjust the numbers. Servings are given in household measurements such as cups, tablespoons, number of pieces or slices.


The nutrients that are listed on food labels are measured in grams or milligrams. This refers to the weight of each nutrient.

In this case a serving of ham weighs 30 grams. Two of those grams are fat, 7 are protein, etc.

What is a Gram?

A gram is a small unit of weight that weighs about the same as a small paper clip. A milligram is much smaller. There are 1000 milligrams in one gram.

There are about 30 grams in one ounce. One ounce weighs the same as a stack of 4 quarters.

What are Calories?

The calories in every food come from only four sources.
Protein
Carbohydrate
Fat
Alcohol

Vitamins and minerals do not contain any calories.

Protein is found in all animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese.  Beans are also a good source of protein.  Grains and vegetables have smaller amounts of protein.  Each gram of protein has 4 calories.

Carbohydrate includes sugars, starch, and fiber.  The foods highest in carbohydrate are fruits, grains, and milk.  Vegetables have smaller amounts of carbohydrates.  Each gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories.

Fat is found in animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products.  It is also found in nuts and oils from soybeans, corn, olives, etc.  Each gram of fat has 9 calories.

Alcohol is found in items such as beer, wine, and liquor.  Each gram of alcohol has roughly 7 calories.


activity 2

* 1. How are the nutrients usually measured in foods?
              

* 2. Check the following nutrients that contain calories:

         


Milk

FDA Standards:

For food labels, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines the serving size of many foods.  This may sometimes be different from My pyramid.  The FDA uses a “usual serving” called the reference amount.  Tmilk nutrition factshis makes it easier to compare different brands of a food, because the serving sizes will be the same.  This also assures that a food can’t be called low-fat only because a very small serving is used.

The FDA has defined standards for a large number of foods.  This standard defines what a food would typically contain.  In order to make a claim about reduced levels of fat, etc., the new food must be compared to the reference foods.

    toast
  • One cup of 2% milk measures 240 milliliters and weighs about 240 grams.  Five of those grams are fat, which is 2% of the total weight.  (Whole milk has 8 grams of fat.)
  • Think of a pat of butter on the table in a restaurant.  Each one is about 5 grams of fat.  So 2% milk is like having skim milk with one pat of butter in it.
  • 45 (37%) of the total 120 calories come from fat.
  • Most of the weight of milk is water.  Fat doesn’t make up very much of the weight, but it makes up a much higher percentage of the calories.

nutrition factsactivity 3

Remember to look at the serving size when calculating nutrient intake.

Please refer to the Nutrition Facts to answer questions 1, 2, and 3.

 * 1. What is the serving size of this product?
         

 * 2. How many calories are in one serving?
         

* 3. If I ate 1 cup, how many calories would I receive?
         


Daily Values

The reference amount used for nutrients on food labels is called the Daily Value (DV).  The label will list percent of the DV that the nutrient provides.  Daily values on the new nutrition label show how a food fits into the overall diet.  The daily values are based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories (You need to adjust the values to fit your own calorie intake).

Milk nutrition facts

The vitamins and minerals listed above are required to be on the food label.  Others will be listed if they have been added to the food.

Terms used on labels:

You may have noticed that labels give nutrition information on the front of the food label.  Here are some examples of the terms you may see:
High, Rich in, Excellent source of- means the food contains 20% or more of the DV for that nutrient.

Good source, Contains, Provides- means the food contains 10-19% of the DV

More, Enriched, Fortified, Added- means 10% or more of the DV of one or more nutrients has been added to the food.

Some labels list things like “lite” or “low.”  To make these claims, a product must meet a certain requirement.  You can use these claims to help you make healthy choices, but be sure to read the “Nutrition Facts” as well.

Here are some more definitions of advertising terms you may be interested in:

"Free" means that a product contains no or only small amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, and/or calories.

“% fat free” is used only on low-fat or fat-free products.  The term is a reflection of the amount of the food’s weight that is fat free.  For example, if a serving of food weights 100 grams and two of the grams come from fat, it can be called “98 percent fat free.”

“Low” means different things in different circumstances;

  • Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
  • Low fat: 3 grams or fewer per serving
  • Low saturated fat: no more than 1 gram per serving
  • Low cholesterol: fewer than 20 milligrams per serving
  • Low sodium: fewer than 140 milligrams per serving

“Reduced” lets you know that a product has been nutritionally altered and contains 25% less of the nutrient or of calories than the regular product.

“Light” means the product contains 50% grams less fat  than the regular product or the calories have been reduced by at least 1/3 of what they were in the regular product. “Light”or “Lite” can also be used to refer to the texture and color of a food; however, the label must spell this out (for example, light brown sugar).


activity 4




* 3. If a food label states that the food is an excellent source of calcium, the food will have at least how much calcium based on the daily value?
              

* 4. The term "Lite" always means the food contains less fat and calories?
         


Tips for using Food Labels:

Food labels can help you shop and eat for better health.  But all the numbers on the labels can be confusing at first.  Follow these tips to help you get started using food labels to compare foods.

  • Begin by comparing the labels on different brands of one food you normally buy, such as dried cereal or canned soup.
  • Focus on one thing at a time.  If you want to eat less fat, compare total fat and saturated fat. If you want to eat less salt, compare sodium.  Then select the brand with the least fat or sodium.
  • Compare how much you really eat to the serving size shown on the label.  If you eat more, multiply the numbers on the label by the number of servings you will eat.
Man scratching head

How can I tell if the food is nutritious or not?

Still having difficulty reading the food labels?  Try easing your way to a nutritious diet…

Label Ease

An easy way to read food labels is right at your fingertips.  All you need is your hand and any food label. 

Look at the nutrient list on the label.  These vitamins and mineral – calcium, fiber, protein, iron and vitamin A and C – are essential to a healthy body.  However, some are often missing in the American diet.  Following these steps will help determine whether a food is nutritious or not.

Step 1:
Make a list to see if you would get these important nutrients from the food you’re testing.  Raise one finger for each nutrient that has 10% or more listed for its percent DV:

  • Calcium
  • Fiber
  • Protein
  • Iron
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C

Step 2:
Look at the top portions of the label.  This section lists calories, fat grams and other nutrients.  Focus on either fat grams or calories.  If you choose total fat, put one finger down if the percent daily value of total fat is more than 10%.  If you choose calories, put one finger down if there are more than 200 calories per serving (10% of the 2,000-Calorie diet).

What do you Score?
If you have at least one finger still standing, the food you are testing is nutritious or a “nutrient-plus” food.  If you have no fingers up, the food is less nutritious, or an “energy-dense” food.

Let’s practice:

Yogurt Nutrition Facts


activity 5

1. Does the nonfat plain yogurt have 10% or more of the following:











 





You can get more practice at reading food labels at home or at your local grocery store.

Review:

Calories from Fat:
Calories from fat should be 30% or less of your daily calories.  Look for foods that have the fewest calories from fat.

Total Fat and Saturated Fat:
Total fat and saturated fat are shown in grams (g).  The fewer grams, the better.  Grams of saturated fat should be less than 1/3 of your total grams of fat.

Cholesterol:
The less cholesterol, the better.  Too much cholesterol can lead to heart disease.  Your goal should be to eat less than 300 mg of cholesterol a day.

Protein:
You need about 45-60 grams of protein a day.  You get protein form poultry, fish, meat, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, beans, grains, and some vegetables.

Vitamins and Minerals:

You need 100% of each of these in you daily diet.  Choose foods with the higher values.  Most foods won’t give you all you need for any one vitamin or mineral.

Nutrition Facts

Serving Size:
The suggested serving size is for an average portion.  All the values listed on the label are based on this amount.  If you eat 2 servings, you eat twice the value on the label.

% Daily Value:
This column tells you what percentage of the total recommended daily intake of nutrients a food gives you if you eat 2,000 calories a day. 

Sodium (Salt):
The less sodium, the better.  Your sodium intake should be 2,400mg or less a day.

Total Carbohydrate:
Look for high numbers for total carbohydrate and dietary fiber, low numbers for sugars.  Carbohydrates give you long lasting energy.  A diet high in fiber can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of some cancers.

Ingredients:

Ingredients are listed by weight, from most to least.  If butter, oil, lard, cream, cheese, or meat are at the top of the list, the product is likely to be high in fat and maybe cholesterol. Also look for sugar and salt on this list.

To receive more information on food labels click on the FDA food label website

 

  

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You have just completed the "Food Label Basics" lesson.  If you have any questions or comments, please contact your LWP nutritionist who will be glad to answer any of your questions. 

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