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Making Sense of Nutrition Labels

Learning to maintain a healthy weight is more important than ever. The percentage of Americans who are overweight or obese is increasing. The nutrition label on packaged foods is one of the easiest tools available  to help you watch your weight. The label gives you a guide for both calories and nutrition. It lets you know what's in the foods you eat.

At first glance, a nutrition label may seem confusing. Packaging space is often limited. The nutrition label was designed to give you a lot of information in a small space. Many people have difficulty understanding that information.

A closer look

Here's a look at the information you will find on a typical nutrition label for a packaged food. item.

Serving size: This is the suggested amount of food in a single serving of the item.  Let's say you are making a meal of packaged macaroni and cheese. A single, one-cup serving has 400 calories  if you follow the package directions.

Servings per container: This is the number of servings that the entire package contains. Let's say your packaged macaroni and cheese has three servings. If you eat the entire box, that's three servings. The total number of calories is 1,200.

Amount per serving:  This refers to the amount of a specific nutrient in one serving. The amount is usually listed in grams (g) or milligrams (mg).

As packaged:  Sometimes a label will have nutrition information for a food item "as packaged." This refers to the number of calories, or the percentage of a specific nutrient, found in one serving before it is cooked (and you add other ingredients).

Prepared: This information tells you the number of calories and the percentage of specific nutrients in the food per serving after you prepare it according to package directions. For example, when you make macaroni and cheese, you add milk, margarine, and cheese.  If you compare this with the "as packaged" information, you can see how adding ingredients increases the nutrition value.

Calories:  This gives you the number of calories in one serving, without any additional ingredients. It also gives you the number of calories  in a prepared serving.
This means after you have added additional ingredients. When you make macaroni and cheese,  you add milk, margarine, and cheese.  Ingredients like these can nearly double the number of calories per serving.

Calories from fat: This information helps you figure out whether a food is low in fat. For packaged macaroni and cheese, only 15 calories per serving come from fat "as packaged." But a prepared serving contains 150 fat calories. That's 10 times more fat than as packaged. To find out the percentage of calories from fat per serving, divide the fat calories (150) by the total calories (400). Next, multiply the number you get by 100: 150/400 x 100 = 37.5 percent. This is not a low-fat meal. A low-fat food is one that contains less than 30 percent calories from fat.

Fat, cholesterol, and other key nutrients

Total fat: This tells you how much fat is in one serving. For packaged macaroni and cheese, you add one-quarter cup of margarine when you prepare the meal. One serving then contains 16.6 grams of fat. This is about 27 percent of your daily fat allotment. This is based on a 2,500-calorie diet. The USDA recommends that no more than 30 percent of your daily calories come from fat. (That is a total of about 83 grams of fat in a 2,500-calorie diet; and about 750 calories.) If you eat the whole box of macaroni and cheese, you will have consumed a whopping 49.8 grams of fat. This is about 60 percent of your daily fat allowance. You can calculate fat calories in any ingredient by multiplying the grams of fat by 9. There are 9 calories in every gram of fat. Saturated and trans-fat amounts are generally listed beneath total fat.

Cholesterol: This information gives the total grams of cholesterol per serving. Margarine has no cholesterol (compared with butter). Adding a quarter-cup of margarine to your macaroni and cheese does not increase the cholesterol in your meal.

Sodium: This gives you the total sodium per serving. The USDA's 2010 recommendations say you should limit your sodium consumption to less than 2,300 mg per day. If you are African-American, your daily sodium intake should be less than 1,500 mg per day. This limit also applies to you if you have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, or if you are age 51 or older.

Total carbohydrate: This information gives you the amount of total carbohydrate per serving. It also  gives you the amount of fiber and sugars.  In our packaged macaroni and cheese example, a single prepared serving supplies 17 percent of your total carbohydrate, based on a 2,500-calorie diet.

Protein: This information gives you the total grams of protein per serving. Most labels do not provide percentages of complete and incomplete proteins. As a general rule, if the product contains milk, meat, or egg, the protein is complete. This means it contains all eight essential amino acids. If the product is plant-based, the proteins are probably incomplete. Your daily protein intake should include some complete proteins.

Vitamins and minerals

This information shows the percentage of various vitamins and minerals in one serving. As a rule, dried and canned foods supply little in the way of vitamins or minerals, unless specific supplements are added. Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables are your best sources of these nutritional elements. Dairy products remain your best source of calcium.

The values on many nutrition labels are based on either a 2,000- or a 2,500-calorie diet. If you eat more than 2,500 calories per day, a single serving will provide smaller percentages of vitamins, minerals, fat, sodium, carbohydrate, and protein than shown on the label. If you eat less than 2,500 calories a day, a single serving will provide greater percentages than shown. Read the nutrition label carefully to see whether the numbers are based on a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet.

How to use the information

A nutrition label offers a wealth of information, once you know how to read it. It tells you not only what nutrients a product contains, but also what nutrients a product lacks. If you know what these deficiencies are, you can adjust your overall diet to make sure you get the nutrients you need.

How do you turn a high-fat, boxed macaroni dish into a healthy, well-rounded meal? Begin by adjusting the recommended added ingredients. Instead of adding 2 percent milk, use skim or 1 percent milk. These options include vitamin D and little or no fat. Don't add margarine. Instead, add 1 tablespoon of grated cheddar cheese or 1 tablespoon of fat-free cream cheese. One minute before the macaroni is finished cooking, add diced green pepper (vitamin C) or shredded carrot (vitamin A) to the boiling water. You may also add any other finely cut vegetable you choose. Boiling for only one minute preserves most of the nutrition and leaves the vegetables crisp. Drain the macaroni and vegetables. Add the dry ingredients from the package, the milk, and the cheese. Stir in a drained can of water-packed tuna (protein and B vitamins). You now have a low-fat tuna-noodle meal that supplies complete proteins and adequate carbohydrate. It contains a lot more nutrition than the original recipe would have provided.

Read the nutrition labels on all the foods you purchase. You may be surprised at what you learn. If you buy sweetened cereals, you'll see that for most of them, more than half of the total calories come from sugar. Even breakfast or nutrition bars, which may sound healthy, contain high amounts of sugar and fat.

Labels can help you change your diet for the better, maintain your weight in a healthy range, and avoid tempting, but low-nutrition foods that seem to beckon from every supermarket shelf.