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Food Nutrition Labels: Decoding the food we eat

3/6/2012, 10:53 a.m.

That means if 150 of the calories come from fat in a single serving, 300 of the calories come from fat in two servings ― a significant factor for those on a restricted fat diet.

Serving sizes can be a bit tricky and are usually much smaller than one estimates. A serving size of ice cream is half a cup – not the heaping bowl people are more prone to dole out. A portion of bran muffin can be one-third of the muffin – a mere bite for some. Yet, eating the entire muffin may result in consuming 30 percent of a person’s total daily calories.

Container size can be deceiving as well. A small bag of chips, which averages about 2 ounces, often contains two servings. Many interpret the small size to be an individual portion. Only the label will tell.

Calories count. Eating too many calories a day is one of the leading causes of overweight and obesity, but there’s a trick to understanding if the food is high or low caloric. Products that contain 40 calories or less per serving are considered low in calories. Serving sizes of 100 calories are considered moderate, while those containing 400 calories or more are deemed high. 

Certain nutrients – fat, cholesterol and sodium – should be limited in consumption, but the nutrition labels do not indicate this.  The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting total fat each day to about 30 percent of total calories and saturated fats to 7 percent of total calories. Cholesterol intake should not exceed 200 mg.― particularly for people with cardiovascular disease. Currently, no upper limit of trans fat has been determined. Most health providers recommend abstaining completely.

Too much sodium can be harmful to those with hypertension, heart disease or stroke. The AHA suggests a limit of 2,300 mg a day – about a teaspoon of salt. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a daily maximum of 1,500 mg of salt for those with high blood pressure, those over 40 and all African American adults. Labels do not reflect this measurement, forcing consumers to do the math.

Some nutrients, on the other hand, are highly recommended. Experts recommend at least 25 grams of dietary fiber each day. Fiber is the undigested part of plant foods and helps regulate the gastrointestinal tract. Serving sizes of five grams or more of fiber are considered high in fiber, while good sources of fiber contain 2.5 to 4.9 grams.

In addition to fiber, vitamins, proteins and calcium are recommended in varying quantity based on age and gender.

Percent Daily Values describe how much or how little the nutrients contribute to each serving. There’s a catch though. The values are based on a 2,000- calorie a day diet and require adjustment to accommodate each person’s individual daily calorie intake.

Some nutrients, such as cholesterol and sodium, remain unchanged in their percent daily values regardless of calories, while total fat and vitamins and minerals vary. As an example, if the product lists that the serving contains 30 percent of the daily value of total fat, it means that each serving contains roughly 20 grams of fat. Two servings of the product would bring the percentage to 60 percent and 40 grams of fat. That also means that the remainder of the food you consume that day should not exceed 24 grams of total fat to meet the recommendation of less than 65 grams each day .