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Nutrition facts label helps with food choices

January 24, 2007|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Today's supermarket is filled with thousands of prepackaged foods for consumers to choose from. Making the best nutritional choice can be difficult for most of us. The nutrition facts label on the packaging can be a wealth of information to help you get the most nutrition for your food dollar.

Use the nutrition facts label when you shop, as you plan your meals and as you cook. The label helps you determine the amount of nutrients you are getting and to compare one product to another. There is a lot of information on the nutrition facts label, and you might not want to read the entire label while shopping. However, there are a few places that you can scan quickly.

Check the serving size and how many servings are in the package/container. How many servings are you actually eating? If you eat two servings of a food, you will consume double the calories and double the percent daily value of the nutrients listed on the nutrition facts label.

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Remember that calories do count. Check how many calories are in a serving and what nutrients you are getting for those calories. In general, a food with 400 or more calories per serving is a high-calorie food. When you look at the label, also check the nutrients to decide whether the food is worth eating.

Does the food contain a lot of sugar? Sugar provides calories but few essential nutrients. Read the ingredient list and make sure added sugars are not one of the first few ingredients. Some names for added sugars include sucrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup and fructose.

Know your fats. Keep the saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol low to help reduce the risk of heart disease. On the label, less than 5 percent of the daily value of a fat is low, 20 percent is high. Choose foods that contain monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, rather than saturated or trans fats. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals consume no more than 20 to 35 percent of their calories from fat each day.

Sodium recommendations are to consume less than 2,300 milligrams per day and that doing this might help reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Processed foods might be high in sodium, so read the label for the amount of sodium in a food.

Increase potassium. To meet the daily potassium recommendation of at least 4,700 milligrams, consume fruits and vegetables, and fat-free and low-fat milk products that are sources of potassium. These foods counteract some of sodium's effect on blood pressure.

The nutrition facts label gives you much more information than these few points. Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a new online tool to help consumers use the nutrition facts labels on food to choose nutritious foods and manage their weight. You can find "Labelman" on the FDA Web site (www.cfsan.fda.gov/~ear/hwm/labelman.html).

If you have questions about what current dietary recommendations are for you, go to www.mypyramid.gov to read more.

Using the nutrition facts label is a key part of weight management and making healthy food choices. If you would like the information sheet, "Use the Nutrition Facts Label to Eat Healthier," send an e-mail to llittle@umd.edu, with "food labels" in the subject line, or send a self-addressed, stamped (39 cents) business-size envelope to Maryland Cooperative Extension - Washington County Office, 7303 Sharpsburg Pike, Boonsboro, MD 21713. Mark the envelope, "Labels."

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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