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Understanding Food Labels

By: Elizabeth Grace - Updated: 7 May 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
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One of the best ways to make healthy dietary choices is to read food labels. Packaged foods and beverages carry labels that offer all of the information that you will need to determine whether or not that food is good, from a nutritional standpoint. Food labeling has become much more consistent in recent years and the labels are becoming easier to understand.

Ingredients

Food labels will include a complete list of ingredients, which can be helpful in a number of ways. First of all, the ingredients are listed in order according to quantity. This means that if the first ingredient listed on the package is flour and the second ingredient is oil, the product has more flour than oil. Ingredient listings can also help you to determine the quality of a product -- for example, children's fruity snacks sometimes have no actual fruit at all. People with food allergies should be diligent when reading the ingredients listing.

Serving Size

Food labels list serving sizes so that you can tell how much of the product counts as one serving. For example, if the serving size is listed as two cookies and you eat four, you will need to double all of the other statistics on the label to figure out what you just put into your body -- twice the sugar, twice the fat, etc. The label will also tell you how many servings are in the whole package.

Calories and Calories from Fat

Calories are units of energy. Food labels will not only tell you how many calories a product contains, but just as importantly, how many of those calories come from fat. Ideally, most of your calories will come from sources other than fat.

Percent of Daily Value

A healthy diet is one that is rich in nutrients. A quick look at the food label will tell you if the product gives you important nutrients that your body needs. There are recommendations for vitamins and minerals that people should try to eat every day in order to stay healthy -- the percent of daily value figures will help you to determine how close you are to fulfilling your body's daily needs. Typically, these percentages are listed for adults; kids needs will vary based on their age, size, activity level, and overall health status.

Total Fat

Total fat indicates the number of fat grams per serving. While it s important to have some fat in your diet, too much isn't healthy. Additionally, the food label will tell you whether the food contains saturated, unsaturated, or trans fats. Unsaturated fats are healthier for your body than the other two.

Cholesterol

Most of the cholesterol that your body needs is produced by your liver. Cholesterol is an important source of vitamin D, but it important to get the cholesterol that you need from healthy sources.

Sodium

Small amounts of sodium are needed to keep proper body fluid balance, among other uses. Almost all foods naturally contain a little bit of sodium, and processes foods often contain a lot.

Total Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are your body's best source of energy. Food labels will tell you not only the total carbohydrates, but also how many are from sugar and how many come from dietary fibre or other sources. It is best to choose fibre-dense carbohydrates rather than simple sugars. Sugary foods are often high in calories but low in nutritional value. Typically, a child should get about 60% of their daily calories from good sources of carbohydrates.

Protein

Most of the body is made up of protein, including muscles, skin, and the immune system. Foods high in protein include eggs, meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, nuts, soybeans, and dried beans.

Vitamin A and Vitamin C

Vitamins A and C are two very important parts of a healthy diet. Vitamin A is needed for good eyesight and healthy skin. It's found naturally in orange or dark leafy green vegetables. The body needs vitamin C to fight infection and heal wounds. Vitamin C is plentiful in citrus fruits as well as in some other fruits and vegetables.

Calcium

Calcium is best known for its role in building healthy bones and teeth. Milk and other dairy products are good sources of calcium, as are green leafy veggies. Many manufacturers of orange juice and yogurt are now fortifying their products with calcium. Pre-teens and teenagers need a significant amount of calcium in their diets, more than younger children or adults.

Iron

Iron is used by the body to maintain healthy red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Teenage girls and women need more iron in their diets than boys and men. Red meat is the best source of iron, but it is also found in iron-fortified cereals, raisins, and dark, leafy vegetables.

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