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Nutrition Facts Labels

The current nutrition facts labels that are found on all packaged foods retailed in the United States contain valuable information, much of which was left off of prior versions. The information contained on nutrition facts labels is there to help you, as a consumer, make wise choices in food purchases that contribute to your regular diet. Though the information can seem overwhelming, when you break nutrition facts labels down into manageable parts, it's not hard to learn to quickly discern which food products are good for you and which are not.

At first glance, nutrition facts labels appear to be a large panel of words, numbers and percentages. But if you learn to read them efficiently, you can quickly tell which products you should pass on for regular consumption. Nutrition facts labels consist of five primary sections. If you look closely, you'll find each section separated by bold, black horizontal lines.

The first section is important to take note of because it lists the serving size and servings per container. Serving size is important because the rest of the information contained on the label applies to that specific unit of measure, or serving size. In other words if the nutrition facts label on a box of toaster pastries lists one pastry as a serving, then the remaining information applies to only one pastry, not two even if there are wrapped by twos inside the box. If you plan on eating two, you would have to double the calories, fat grams, etc. that apply to that product. When a product cannot be measured by numbers of pieces, then the serving size is generally listed in simple measurements such as cups or tablespoons followed by the metric amount.

The second section of nutrition facts labels lists both the total calories and the number of calories from fat. Again, the total calories and calories from fat listed applies to the serving amount. As a general guideline, you should try to avoid foods that contain over 400 calories per serving as well as foods that derive half or more than half of calories from fat. If you are trying to eat a low-calorie diet, such as when trying to loose weight, look for products with less than 100 calories per serving and no or very little calories from fat.

The third section of nutrition facts labels contains information on what could be considered the “unfriendly” contents. The information in this section lists how many grams of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, and protein are included in each serving. While protein isn't bad, fat, sodium and cholesterol is and it's important to maintain a healthy balance of carbohydrate and protein intake. Apart from the total grams, a percentage of daily value based on a 2000 calorie diet is included. You should try to limit each serving of a product to 5% or less of total fat, cholesterol and sodium. Also avoid trans fat whenever possible.

The fourth section of nutrition facts labels contains vitamins and other nutrients that are considered good. When you consider that there is a recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals, then ideally you should reach 100% each day. Therefore look for foods that contain at least 20% per serving to help you reach the daily amount without exceeding caloric intake. Not all products are going to be high in all vitamins and minerals, but pay special attention to vitamins A and C along with iron and calcium.

Finally, the bottom portion of nutrition facts labels is a footnote, sometimes located just before a list of ingredients. This is where you should be able to determine if the percentage of values is based on a 2000 calorie diet or 2500 calorie diet. 2000 is most common, but some products list the daily values differently. When nutrition facts labels are large enough, they will list out values based on both calorie intakes, but remember that your ideal caloric intake could be different yet. Remember that the information provided is a general guideline, but will still provide you with enough information to know if you are selecting foods that enhance or hinder your dietary goals.

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