The facts about nutrition labels: How to use them. How they may change.

December 12, 2011

Gentleman reading the food label for nutrition values

It's great to have a wide selection of foods when you go to the grocery. But with so many choices, how do you know which ones are healthiest for you? How can you tell which brand of fruit juice has more vitamin C? Which cereal should you buy if you want less sugar? Which cheese is lower in fat? The key to it all is the nutrition facts label. It's filled with good information about what's inside that box, bottle, bag, or can.

The Food and Drug Administration, FDA, and the Department of Agriculture, USDA, decide what goes on the food label. All food labels have to show the same nutrition and health information. That way, you can compare different foods and make your best choice. The FDA and USDA also regulate health claims on food labels. When a food says "low fat," it must meet strict guidelines to make the claim.

For some people, the information on the label can be lifesaving. People with allergies can find out if a food contains something they're allergic to. That can help them prevent a serious reaction. People with diabetes can get information on sugar content. And people on a low-salt diet can see how much sodium is in the food.

While the labels contain useful facts, they can be confusing. Here are some tips to help you use the labels to make better choices.

Understanding nutrition facts labels

The information on the labels can help you eat a healthier and more balanced diet. As the FDA explains, the label gives you two kinds of information. One part is product-specific. It includes serving size, calories, and nutrients. These are different with each food product. The other part includes daily values. These are percentages that show the nutrition an average person will get from eating one serving. The percentage of daily value is a general guide. It can help you see if a food is high or low in a nutrient. Five percent or less is low, 20 percent or more is high.

The daily value percentage is based on a person who eats 2,000 calories a day. You may need more or fewer depending on your age, size and activity level. But the percentage of daily value is still a helpful gauge.

Check the serving size first

When you're choosing a food, be sure you know the serving size. Everything else on the label, such as calories, is based on that amount. And it may be much smaller than you think. For example, you might assume that a frozen potpie would be for one person. But the label may call it two servings. If you ate the whole pie, you'd get twice the nutrients – and calories – listed for one serving. Or, you may think a typical bowl of cereal is one serving. The serving size listed, however, could be as small as half a cup.

Calories count

This top part of the label also lists the calories in one serving. For example, the label may indicate one serving equals three cookies and has 100 calories. If you eat six cookies, then, that's two servings and 200 calories.

Also, keep in mind that fat free doesn't mean calorie free. Lower fat items may have just as many calories as full-fat versions. The label also shows you how many calories come from fat. For most people, only about 30 percent of their calories should come from fat.

Watch fats, cholesterol, and sodium

The label also lists facts about nutrients you should limit. These include fats, cholesterol, and sodium. Eating too much may increase your risk of heart disease, cancers, and high blood pressure. The goal is to stay below 100 percent of the daily value for these nutrients every day. Choose foods that are lowest in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.

If you have a health condition, your doctor may tell you to limit some ingredients even more. Some people with high blood pressure should limit the sodium, or salt, they eat. This label information can help you keep it in check.

Pick the healthiest carbohydrates

Carbohydrates include sugars and fiber, and are also listed on the label. Try to limit foods with added sugars. These may be listed as sucrose, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, or maple syrup. They add calories but no other nutrients.

Healthy sources of carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are good choices. They can lower the risk of heart disease and help your digestive system. Whole grains are a good source of fiber. You can't always tell which foods are made from whole grains by their names. Some that are called "multi-grain," for example, may not contain whole grains. You need to look for the whole grain named first in the ingredients list. Whole wheat, brown rice, and whole oats are a few to watch for.

Get your protein, vitamins, and minerals

Labels can also help you choose more foods with healthy ingredients. Many Americans don't get enough vitamins, calcium, and iron. They should choose brands with a higher percentage of daily value for these nutrients. Try to get the most nutrition you can for the calories.

The FDA says most Americans get plenty of protein, but not always from the healthiest foods. Foods high in protein include meat, poultry, dry beans, milk, and milk products. Check the labels to find foods that are lean, low-fat or fat free.

Big changes may be coming

The nutrition facts labels we use today were introduced in 1992. As CBS News reported in September, the FDA wants to revise these labels. The FDA and other groups want to give consumers more useful information. They also want to help fight the rising rate of obesity in the U.S.

The obesity rate has more than doubled since 1980. About 72 million people are now overweight to the point where it harms their health. Obesity raises risks of diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes. Americans spend about $147 billion a year on obesity-related health costs.

FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor said, "There's no question obesity is a central public health concern that the nutrient facts panel can play a role in. It's obviously not a magic wand, but it can be an information tool."

Here are some issues the FDA may consider in the label changes:

  • Portion sizes should better reflect reality. The 2.5 servings listed on a 20-ounce soda bottle is a good example. In real life, the soda is often finished by one person in one sitting. It's rarely shared by two adults and a child. The same goes for a can of soup. One serving is often listed as just two-fifths of a can. But many times, one person eats it all at once.
  • The FDA wants to put more emphasis on calories. Many people rely on that information for weight control.
  • Some items may disappear. The "calories from fat" and daily percentage value numbers haven't proven as useful as hoped.
  • Some groups would like to include information about preservatives in food.

As Bloomberg.com reported, a government science panel wants to go even further. They believe labels should rate sodium, sugar, and fat content on a scale of zero to three. Ellen Wartella is the panel's leader and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. She believes the FDA and USDA should do more than just list nutrition facts. She thinks the labels should encourage people to choose healthier foods and drinks. But the FDA has always stayed away from putting judgments about food on labels.

Some people have said that the current label is confusing. They want a simple way to make a choice about whether a food is good for them. That's a judgment the food industry wants to leave to consumers.

The debate on what should go on the labels will continue into the future. But don't wait for that to be resolved. Today's labels can be a big help in making better food choices right now.

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