Nutrition Labels: How to Read a Label (cont.)

Ingredients are listed in order from the greatest amount to the least. Just how much of a "fruit breakfast bar" is fruit? McLeod advises leaving the product on the shelf if the terms "enriched wheat flour" or "sugar" appear before "fruit." She also offers this rule of thumb: the fewer the ingredients, the better. "If there's a long list of scary ingredients you can't pronounce, you might want to put it back." Some labels also show you the total recommended daily allowances of nutrients for a 2,000-calorie diet.

The Important Term That's Not on Labels

A desire to lose weight may be the main reason you pay attention to what you eat. But eating to promote good health should be a consideration as well. Labels can help. In 1993, the FDA required manufacturers to list saturated fat and cholesterol on nutrition labels. Now the issue is trans fats.

Studies show these trans fats sabotage good cholesterol and boost bad cholesterol, triglycerides, and lipoproteins that clog arteries and cause heart disease. They're also suspected of playing a role in diabetes and cancer. But you won't find trans fat listed on many nutrition labels, at least not yet. The FDA has given manufacturers until January 2006 to list them. Some manufacturers have already complied. Meanwhile, the code words to watch for in the label's ingredients list are "partially hydrogenated."

Trans fats are everywhere you find processed foods. McLeod, who lives in Gainesville, Fla., reads -- and understands -- nutrition labels. But she didn't always. "I thought I was eating nutritious foods." She was shocked when she pulled the packaged foods from her pantry and refrigerator. "I threw out most of it. Trans fat was in almost every single packaged food item in my house."

Label Reading on the Run

On your way home from work you stop at the grocery store to pick up dinner. Researching labels isn't a priority. You want to grab the goods and go. Here's a label-reading shortcut. First, ignore the "sell" on the front. Go straight to the back and look at %DV. According to the FDA, you should look for nutrients you want, such as fiber, to represent 20%DV or more, and nutrients you should limit, such as fat, to represent 5% or less. Next look at serving size. If you'll eat twice that amount, then double the %DV numbers, or if you'll eat half the amount, then halve the %DV numbers. Remember that DV is based on 2,000 calories a day. In general a diet containing 1,000 to 1,200 calories per day is what is recommend for most women trying to lose weight and a diet containing between 1,200 and 1,600 should be chosen for most men trying to lose weight.

When you're in a hurry, maybe the best you can do is compare three brands of the same product, such as chili. Thankfully, manufacturers tend to standardize serving sizes. For chili, it's 1 cup. So when you check the different brands for %DV it's easy to see which packs more of the nutrients you want and less of those you don't want.

SOURCES: Nutrition Action Health Letter 28, No. 6, July/August 2001. Kerry McLeod, author, The Last Diet Book Standing, Gainesville, Fla. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute web site. U. S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition web site.

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