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Become food smart: Understand the food label

Become Food Smart: Understand the food label

To make the right choice for food, it is important for you to understand what you are eating. You should not buy a food product just by looking at the attractive front cover. What is required is to check the nutrition label at the back of the package. This helps to choose between products. But the description and terminologies provided can be confusing. So, here is our explanatory guide to appropriately judge the product. To begin with, the standardized nutritional labeling on packaged foods has three components:

1. Nutrition Facts
From this you can get information about the amount of nutrients and food constituents in a specific serving size.

a. Serving size/serving per container
This is the first thing stated at the top of the food label. It is the standardized measure of number of servings found in the package. Serving size is expressed in terms like cups, spoons, slices, ounces, grams etc. The quantities given for calories and nutrients are based on this serving size.

b. Calorie per serving
This is the amount of calories found in single food serving. It is advisable to eat the right amount of calories along with the recommended nutrients. When you multiply this with the total serving per container, it gives the total volume of the package.

c. Calories from fat
This is the amount of calories that the food obtains from fats. It is important information to limit the amount of fat you consume.

d. % daily value
This gives the percentage of daily nutrient requirement that per serving of food contains. It is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.

e. Total fat
This is the amount of fats in grams present per serving. There are separate numbers for amount of saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans-fat. For a healthy diet you should limit the consumption of trans and saturated fats.

f. Cholesterol
This is the amount of cholesterol in milligrams and the percentage of recommended daily value that the food contains.

g. Total carbohydrates
This tells us the total carbohydrates present per serving in grams and the percentage of recommended daily value. It includes dietary fibers, sugar, starches and non-digestible additives.

h. Dietary fibers
Fibers are very beneficial. They not only protect your arteries from cholesterol but also help in weight loss. A minimum of 15 grams of daily fiber uptake is recommended.

i. Sugars
This indicates the amount of sugar present in the food. There is no differentiation marked for natural and refined sugar on the label. One should check the ingredient list for that.

j. Protein
This value is the amount of protein present per serving of food. Usually a minimum of 50-100 grams of protein uptake is recommended on a daily basis.

k. Sodium
This indicates the amount of sodium (given in milligrams) present in the food. You shouldn’t consume more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium in a day as it increases the risk of hypertension.

l. Vitamins
Vitamins in small quantities should be essential parts of your daily diet.

2. Nutrition claims
Sometime, packaged food is described using the labels given below. These usually indicate the manufacturer’s claims about the product – labeling it healthy, fat-free, lean etc. This is additional information and the terminology used can be confusing. The terms defined as per FDA guidelines are given below:

a. Light
Means that the food has half the fat, one-third the calories or half the salt as present in the comparison food. It can also be used to describe color or texture.

b. Fat free
Any food carrying this label should contain less than ½ a gram of fat per serving.

c. Sugar free
A food qualifies for this label if it contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar.

d. Cholesterol free
If a food contains less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving, it qualifies for the ‘cholesterol free’ label.

e. Healthy
This indicates that the food may contain no more than 3 grams of fat (including one gram of saturated fat) and 60 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.

f. High/Good source
This label indicates that the food contains 20 per cent or more of the daily recommended value for the nutrient cited.

g. Lean
This means that the food product contains less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.

h. Extra lean
The FDA has defined it to mean that there is less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol in the product.

i. Less and fewer
These labels can be used to describe foods which have a nutrient or calorie content which is less by at least 25 percent of a comparable, ‘normal’ product.

j. Low
This means frequent consumption of the food is possible without crossing the daily intake limit.

k. Low fat
Any product carrying this label should contain 3 grams or less of fat per serving. Labels like low saturated fat mean that the food contains 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving. There are other, similarly worded labels like low sodium indicating 140 milligrams or less of the nutrient sodium per serving; low cholesterol indicating 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving. If a food product carries the label low calorie, it should provide 40 calories or less per serving.

m. Natural flavors
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines ‘natural flavors’ as ‘the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis, which contains a flavoring constituent derived from a spice, fruit, fruit juice, vegetable, vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf, or similar plant material; meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional’. This broad definition simply means that ‘natural flavors’ are extracts from these non-synthetic food sources.

n. Reduced
This labels indicates that the food contains at least 25 per cent less of a nutrient or of calories than the regular product.

3. Ingredients List
All food products must have an ingredients list. The ingredients are mentioned in descending order based on their weight. It is essential information for people who are allergic to certain things or follow a specific diet to check the list.

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