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Learn the Lingo: Decoding the Often Opaque Language of Food Labels

By H. K. Jones

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the eBook The Grocery Cart Makeover by H.K. Jones, a unique guide to healthy grocery shopping. H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C., as well as a regular RealJock contributor.

You know the label's there, but do you know how to use it? Many people read the calories and fat and call it a day. The Nutrition Facts label has so much more to offer—here's how to make the information work better for you.

Be Serving Size Savvy
The most critical part of the label, or Nutrition Facts Panel, is Serving Size. Make that the first thing you check out so that you know exactly what is in the package. Unfortunately, the Serving Size often doesn't match what most people typically consider a serving. For example, if you purchase an individually packaged muffin, the Nutrition Facts label may list the information for half of the muffin—not the whole muffin, as you might assume. It's tricky, but it happens more often than you think.

The label listing Servings Per Container is a helpful way to double-check the amount you're eating. So if you have a container of ice cream listing "Servings Per Container: 4", and you polished off the entire container during your favorite sitcom, you should multiply the calories (and everything else) per serving by four. Yikes!

What's the Value of the "Percent Daily Value"?
On the right side of the panel you'll find a column of numbers that most people feel are simply worthless. Not so! These numbers, called the % Daily Value, can give you a point of reference to help you gauge how a food will help you meet your nutrition goals for the day.

The Nutrition Facts label will print the number of daily calories (usually 2,000) upon which the percentages are based. Here's the rundown of Daily Values, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. If you strive to keep your diet within these parameters, you'll be on the road to great health—and the Nutrition Facts label can help you get there. Since this information is also printed at the bottom of the label, you won't have to worry about memorizing numbers.

Nutrition Facts
Calories 2,000
Total fat 65 grams (g)
Saturated fat 20 grams (g)
Cholesterol 300 milligrams (mg)
Sodium 2400 milligrams (mg)
Total Carbohydrate 300 grams (g)
Dietary Fiber 25 grams (g)

So how does this all come together? The percentages you see on the right side of the Nutrition Facts label represent the percent of each nutrient the selected food provides. And the Calories from Fat tells you how many of the total calories are coming from fat. From there, you can determine how fatty the food is by dividing the Calories from Fat by the total Calories.

Check out this example:

As a general rule, foods that supply 5% or less of a nutrient are considered low in that nutrient. Percentages of 20% or more are considered high in that nutrient. You can tell from this label that this food is fairly high in fat and calcium. The food also appears to be high in sodium. Would you be surprised to know it's a label for boxed macaroni and cheese? This label helps you understand that if you eat this food, you should be careful to watch the amount of sodium you eat the rest of the day, since you would take in almost a quarter of your recommended amount in this one serving (1/2 the box) of macaroni and cheese. Don't forget to multiply everything by 2 if you polish off the whole box.

You can also determine that 44% of the calories are coming from fat by dividing the calories from fat (110) by the total calories (250) and multiplying that by 100 (to make it a percent). To follow a healthy diet, aim to keep that total fat percent at 30% or less.

Trans fat is a 2006 addition to the Nutrition Facts label, and is an important listing that helps you control the amount you consume, which can hike up heart disease risk. There's no "Percent Daily Value" established for trans fat as there are for other fats, but your best bet is to avoid trans fat all together.

Keep your eye on the Nutrition Facts label to help you manage your choices in the grocery store. The Nutrition Facts label can be your best tool to ensure that what you're putting into your cart is worthy of putting into your body.