The Villages Voice - October 2014

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Understanding Food Labels

by C. Wieland

UNDERSTANDING FOOD LABELS* C. Wieland – ARNP   A basic understanding of food labels is required to make healthy food choices. Understanding general information that applies to all food labels will assist in identifying the best choices for you. Various departments of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), some in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) establish and revise the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines provide “authoritative advice about consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active to attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health” and “are intended for Americans ages 2 years and over, including those at increased risk of chronic disease” ( While the guidelines “encourage Americans to focus on eating a healthful diet,” everyone must make choices on the basis of their individual health status and goals in conjunction with their physician. All food labels are arranged in a specific format as determined and monitored by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) the USDA ( Food labels are divided into 5 basic sections. Section 1: “Nutrition Facts” indicates the food “serving size” in standard measurement formats (e.g. – cups, teaspoons, number of pieces, etc), followed by the metric measurement and the number of serving sizes in the container. “Serving sizes” are arbitrary, determined by each food product manufacturer / packager, and are not consistent across all food items. For example, one brand of an item may indicate “1/2 cup” as a serving size, while another brand may indicate “1 cup as a serving size. Section 2: This section indicates “Calories” and “Calories from Fat.” To obtain the percent of calories that are accounted for by fat, divide the “calories from fat” number by the total “calories” number. It is important to understand what a “calorie” actually is. Contrary to popular belief, a “calorie” is NOT the amount of something in food that makes you gain weight. In fact, a “calorie” is a measure of heat energy, and is actually the amount of “energy” – i.e. – “physical activity” you will need to use up or “burn” a given amount of a specific food. However, for this discussion, the term will be used as commonly understood. Section 3: More detailed information about food content is listed here, including general categories of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, as well as sub-categories contained in the food item. It is important to remember that “cholesterol” (a sub-category of “fats”) is listed separately, “sodium” is the indicator for “salt,” and carbohydrates are a combination of simple sugars and starches – complex sugars that include foods containing fiber. Also identified in this section are the “% Daily Values.” These are also referred to as the “Recommended Daily Allowances” (RDA’s), and are amounts established by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences as identified by the USDA Agricultural Research Service ( NOTE: The information on ALL labels is for a “2000 calorie” standard. If a serving size of 1 cup contains 5% of the RDA of a given ingredient, that 1 cup serving will contain LESS than 5% of the RDA for that ingredient if the person is consuming MORE than 2000 calories daily. Likewise, 1 cup will contain MORE than 5% of the RDA of the ingredient if the person is consuming LESS than 2000 calories daily. Remember, an RDA number is NOT an actual AMOUNT of an ingredient; rather, it is a PERCENT of content of a total number of calories. Section 4: This section identifies vitamins and minerals, and the values for their “RDA’s.” Section 5: “Ingredients” are listed in the order of the amount of their presence in the food item. Therefore, as an example, a label that lists “water” as the first ingredient means that it contains more water than any other single ingredient, and NOT that it is 51% or more water. For example, if a food item contains 99 ingredients – 2 parts “water” and 1 part each of the remaining 98 ingredients, it contains more water than any other single ingredient, and “water” will be listed as the first ingredient. (This is also true of personal care items, cleaning products, etc.) Further information can be obtained by entering a various topics in your web browser, or from the following websites: * This article, in whole or in part, may not be reproduced without the express written consent of the author.