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How to Decode a Food Label November 17, 2010

Know What’s in Your Food:
How to Decode a Food Label

Learn to interpret the numbers and words on the back of the package.

Can you guess what food is in this can based on the nutrition label?

Can you guess what’s in the can on the left? This food has many health highlights as it is high in fiber (6g), protein (6g), and iron (45% DV). Other perks: the food is fat-free, low in sugar (2g), and low in calories (110). The high fiber and protein content make this a filling/sustaining food for the serving size: 1/2 cup. There is only one apparent drawback: the food is also high in sodium.

Did you guess the food? The can shown is for black beans. Canned beans are wonderful foods to stock up on: they contribute a lot of great things to a meal or a snack and will help keep you full much longer than refined foods such as chips or cookies. As for the sodium, there are two things you can do to significantly reduce the amount of sodium you consume from canned beans: 1) Buy reduced sodium versions, 2) Rinse the beans before you eat them. Note that even if you do neither of these suggestions canned beans are still pantry (and definitely dorm room) worthy.

How do you compare similar packaged foods to decide which is healthiest?
Here are a few tips:

  • Serving Size: Make sure that you take the serving size into account any time you are eating packaged foods. Most bottled fruit juices and sports drinks, for example, have a serving size of 8 oz but the bottle often contains 2.5 servings. To avoid excessive sugar intake, try to stick to the actual serving size on these bottles and be aware that if you consume the whole thing you will need to multiply the nutrient values by how many servings are in the bottle. For snack foods, it can be helpful to put the amount that you think you should eat based on your caloric and nutrient needs on a plate and then  put the rest of the package out of reach.
  • Look for Low Sodium Options: The percentages for sodium are not based on the Adequate Intake value of 1500mg/day but rather on the Daily Value of 2400 mg/day. The  Upper Limit (the maximum amount considered within a healthy range) however is 2300 mg/day. What’s wrong with this picture? If we were to stay within 100% of the DV we would still be consuming 100mg more than recommended per day.
  • Look for foods low in saturated fat and try to avoid trans fats (present anytime you see “hydrogenated oils” in the ingredient list). Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats provide health benefits and should be included in the diet.
  • Include high fiber foods and look for “whole wheat” as one of the first ingredients in most of your bread products.
  • Choose foods that are good sources of the vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the label.
  • In general, 5% or less is “low” and 20% or more “high” for each given nutrient.

For more information visit the FDA website.

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