9. Making Friends with Food Labels

This program can only work if you give careful consideration to what types of food you eat. It behooves you then to make friends with food labels. Nutrition facts labels found on food products inform you about the nutrients that are found in the items you buy. Food labeling guidelines are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture governs the labels found on meat and poultry products. Federal laws require foods to carry nutrition facts labels on every product that is processed or packaged. The manufacturer’s name and address, along with the food distribution company, must also appear, along with a nutrition panel that provides a listing of ingredients and standard nutrients.

Cyndi’s Secrets

If you haven’t used a particular food in over a year, get rid of it. You will likely not use it (or want to use it) in the future.

Ingredient List

Federal law requires that all food ingredients be listed on the label. They have to be listed in descending order by weight and include all substances found in the food. This is important for people who need to avoid certain types of foods in their diet due to special dietary needs, religious reasons, or because of a food intolerance or allergy.

Health and Nutrient Claims

You have seen product labels that say “reduced fat,” “low cholesterol,” or “sugar free” to name a few. Some even claim to prevent osteoporosis or prevent certain types of cancer. Manufacturers deliberately place these claims on the packaging to help sell their products. In some cases these products may be a better choice, other times not. Once again, you have to be a savvy consumer. Just because a label indicates that the product is “light” doesn’t always mean it is a lower in fat or calories; it could also be lighter in color or in sodium.

Thankfully, the federal government is regulating more of these claims. Health claims are based on scientific research showing evidence of the connection between foods or nutrients and specific diseases. Statements listed can indicate that a specific diet/health relationship exists, but statements cannot indicate that a certain food or food product prevents or causes a disease. Start comparing one product against another to determine which is best for you.


Some food products are exempt from federal food labeling laws, such as foods prepared by small businesses, bakeries, and restaurants. Food in multiunit packages, those in small packages like chewing gum, and coffee and tea are also exempt.

The following health claims are the only ones currently permitted to be printed on food labels:

Calcium and osteoporosis: A calcium-rich diet is linked to a reduced risk of osteoporosis, a condition in which bones become soft or brittle.

Fat and cancer: A diet low in total fat is linked to a reduced risk of some cancers.

Saturated fat and cholesterol and heart disease: A diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol can help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Fiber-containing grain products, fruits, and vegetables, and cancer: A diet rich in high-fiber grain products, fruits, and vegetables can reduce the risk of some cancers.

Fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain fiber and risk of heart disease: A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain fiber can help reduce the risk for heart disease.

Sodium and high blood pressure (hypertension): A low-sodium diet may help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.

Fruits and vegetables and cancer: A low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables (foods that are low in fat and may contain dietary fiber, vitamin A, or vitamin C) is linked to a reduced risk of some cancers.

Folic acid and neural tube defects: Women who consume 0.4 milligram of folic acid per day reduce their risk of giving birth to a child affected with a neural tube defect.

Nutrient content claims are more specific than health claims. In order for a product to include any of these claims, the food product must meet appropriate criteria.

10. A Necessary Glance: Nutrition Food Labels

When purchasing a food product, take a look at the nutrition facts panel. Here you can find out what’s in each serving you eat. The panel indicates the recommended serving size, number of calories in a serving, number of calories from fat in a serving, and amounts of nutrients per serving, including total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, and protein. Amounts for these nutrients are listed in grams or milligrams per serving as well as in percentage of daily values. Daily values are also required for vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron.

As illustrated by the table on the following page, the nutrition facts panel offers information to help you make good choices about the foods you eat. If you want to lose weight and modify caloric intake, it can help you purchase foods that help you limit your fat intake and total calories. The bottom of the nutrition facts panel offers reference information for you on daily intake limits of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and appropriate intake for total carbohydrate and dietary fiber for both a 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diet. Most of us don’t always remember these figures, so the panel is a great aid to help you see how a particular product fits into your total day’s requirement.

Total fat recommendations are based on 30 percent of total calorie needs for the day. To determine your specific needs if you are not following a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet, you need to divide your total calories by 0.30 (30 percent). For example, if you are following a 1,500-calorie diet, no more than 450 daily calories should come from fat (1,500 x 0.30 = 450). To change this to grams of fat, you divide 450 by 9. (Fat provides 9 calories per gram of food.) Therefore, you should aim for a maximum of 50 grams of fat per day.

Keep the following tips in mind when reading food labels:

  • Stick with listed serving size. Consuming more than this amount leads to higher calories consumed.
  • Watch package sizes. Some products such as beverages, prepackaged foods, and tuna may look like one serving, but they are actually two. A trail mix I recently saw contained five servings even though it was packaged as a singular snack. Refer to the “servings per container” reference on the label for guidance.
  • Look for high-fiber foods with at least 5 grams of dietary fiber per serving. These foods help fill you up and are often lower in fat and calories than others.
  • Watch calories from fat. Make sure they’re not your primary nutrient source.
  • Balance your food choices. For every higher-fat product you choose, balance your meal with a lower-fat option. For example, balance cheese cubes with whole-wheat crackers.
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