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There are a number of medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, even food allergies (Read about "Diabetes" "Hypertension: High Blood Pressure" "Obesity" "Food Allergies"), where knowing exactly what you are eating is crucial. If you're trying to keep tabs on the amount of fat and calories you're eating, reading food labels can be a step in the right direction. According to the American Medical Association, the nutrition facts on food labels can provide useful information about the amounts per serving of fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber and several important nutrients, and can help consumers compare foods and their overall nutritional content. (Read about "Losing Weight")
But sometimes, the amount of information can seem overwhelming. Understanding the basic format of a food label can help. To start, understand that there are some specific nutritional facts required on virtually all food labels. These include:
Food labels may also contain information on polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, potassium, soluble fiber, and other vitamins and minerals. (Read about "Fiber and Health")
One of the newest things to show up on food labels is trans fat. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ordered manufacturers to list trans fatty acids, or trans fat, on the Nutrition Facts panel of foods and some dietary supplements. FDA says scientific reports have confirmed the relationship between trans fat and an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
Trans fat occurs in foods when manufacturers use hydrogenation, a process in which hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in order to turn the oil into a more solid fat. Trans fat is often, but not always found in the same foods as saturated fat, such as vegetable shortening, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, salad dressings and other processed foods.
FDA estimates trans fat labeling has the potential to prevent hundreds of cases of coronary heart disease and 250 to 500 deaths each year.
Food labels should also clearly state if the food product contains any ingredients that contain protein derived from the eight major allergenic foods. Manufacturers are required to identify, in plain English, the presence of ingredients that contain protein derived from milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat or soybeans in the list of ingredients. They can also say, "contains" followed by the name of the source of the food allergen after or adjacent to the list of ingredients. This labeling is especially helpful to children who must learn to recognize the presence of substances they must avoid. For example, if a product contains the milk-derived protein, casein, the product's label will have to use the term "milk" in addition to the term "casein" so that those with milk allergies can clearly understand the presence of the allergen they need to avoid.
Products with food labels are also required to state their serving size. FDA says there was a time when the serving size was up to the discretion of the food manufacturer. Today, however, serving sizes are more uniform and reflect the amounts people actually eat. They also must be expressed in both common household measures, such as a cup, teaspoon or slice, and by metric measures of grams and milliliters.
Nutrients are given as a percentage of the Daily Value that would be appropriate for someone on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. For example, the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that the total amount of fat consumed daily be no more than 35 percent of your total calories. So for someone eating 2,000 calories a day, no more than 700 calories (or 35 percent of 2,000) should come from fat. If a food provides 220 fat calories in a serving, then it's supplying 33 percent of the maximum Daily Value for fat. Beyond that, keep in mind that NCEP says most of our fat calories should come from unsaturated fats, so make sure you check the label for the type of fat the product contains. (Read about "Low Fat Food Tips") And of course, if you need more or less than 2,000 calories a day, you'll have to adjust accordingly, but this can be a helpful reference point. (Read about "Dietary Guidelines")
FDA says it uses Daily Values in order to prevent misinterpretations that could happen with quantitative values. For example, according to FDA, if a food has 140 milligrams (mg) of sodium, that number might seem high. But in fact, that amount represents under 10 percent of the Daily Value for sodium. On the other hand, someone might mistake a food with 5 grams (g) of saturated fat as being low in fat, when in fact that food would provide one-fourth the total Daily Value because 20 g is the Daily Value for saturated fat.
It takes some getting used to, but eventually reading food labels can become a habit. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) says it's a habit that more and more shoppers have developed. ADA adds that, for most healthy individuals, all products can fit into a healthful eating plan so long as your overall eating behavior has a healthy balance; reading the labels can help people achieve that balance. In addition to labels, reading the list of ingredients can also be useful, especially if someone is allergic or sensitive to individual additives or products such as milk, diary products, nuts or certain chemicals.
Beyond the basic label information, many products make additional nutritional claims. But what do they mean? Here are some of the common ones as defined by FDA:
One place where you won't find information on fat content is on the labels of foods for children younger than age four. FDA says the reason is to prevent parents from wrongly assuming that infants and toddlers should restrict their fat intake, when, in fact, they should not. According to FDA, fat is important during these years to ensure adequate growth and development. Ask your pediatrician about this.
You also won't find all the information normally contained on a food label on products that really don't need them, for example, if the product contains insignificant amounts of seven or more of the mandatory nutrients and total calories. Products in small packages, such as gum are also not required to carry complete nutrition information unless a nutrient content or health claim is made for the product. However, FDA says they must provide an address or telephone number for consumers to obtain the required nutrition information.
All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.
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