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The Right Way to Read Food Labels : Nutrition Nuggets Are Often Buried in Confusing Lists

August 25, 1988|CARL JEROME | United Press International Food Writer

As consumers, we have the right to know the nutritional value of the foods we buy, and all foods, whether raw or processed, should have a nutritional label.

If a company can print its name on a food package, not to mention slogans and promotional information, there is no reason why it can't provide consumers with complete nutritional information as well.

Currently, nutritional labeling, which is regulated by a number of agencies, is a voluntary program. Companies that do choose to label their package, though, must follow a prescribed format.

So let's take a look at the nutritional labels we do have--and a great many foods carry them.

All nutritional labels look alike, so if you have a can, jar or box handy, refer to it while you read this article.

Start With Serving Size

Under the top banner: "Nutritional Information Per Serving," first note the serving size. These are not standardized, although similar products sometimes use the same serving size. A serving of mayonnaise, for example, is generally listed as 1 tablespoon.

Note that the amount you eat may be different, very different, than the serving size on the label.

Just below the serving size is the number of servings per container, which should be self-explanatory. Unfortunately, on a package I recently examined I read "refer to net weight" for number of servings per package, and the net weight was not clearly marked on the package.

Reading a nutritional label should not be a treasure hunt, nor should it require a calculator to determine the number of servings per package. I did not buy the product because of the confusing label.

The next section of a nutritional label must include calories, protein, carbohydrate and fat.

Calories are the amount of energy a food provides. All foods provide calories. If you regularly eat food with more total calories than your body needs, the extra energy is stored as fat and you gain weight.

The next three items--protein, carbohydrates and fat--are listed in grams, which are the standard unit of weight for measuring these items. There are 28 grams in an ounce.

Protein is a basic part of every cell in the body. The best proteins come from animal foods--meat, fish, poultry, eggs and milk. Protein from legumes, such as soy beans and chick peas, are almost as good. Protein from cereals and vegetables are best when combined in a meal with a little meat, eggs, milk or cheese.

There are three types of carbohydrates: starch, sugar and cellulose. Starch and sugar give energy. We need to eat more starch and less sugar.

Starch comes from grain products, potatoes, dry beans and peas. Concentrated sugars come from cane and beet sugar, jellies, candy, honey, molasses and syrups. Cellulose, which adds bulk or fiber to our diets, is found in fruits, vegetables and whole-grain cereals. Most Americans need to increase the amount of cellulose or fiber in their diets.

Fat is a concentrated form of energy. A gram of fat provides about twice as many calories as a gram of protein or carbohydrate. Fat is an important source of vitamins A, D, E and K. Most of us eat at least 25% more fat than we should.

Two other bits of much needed information--on sodium and fiber content--may appear on this part of the label. In addition, some labels use this spot to define the fat content in terms of saturated fat, mono-unsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat and cholesterol. This information should also appear on all nutritional labels.

The next section deals with the "Percentage of U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances (U.S. RDA)." The RDAs are the amount of foods, such as vitamins, suggested as the needed part of one's daily food intake to stay healthy.

Eight items must be included here; any of 12 others may also be listed.

First is protein, followed by Vitamin A. The latter is needed for normal growth and vision, and helps to maintain the skin and inner linings of the body.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, helps to keep blood vessels strong and to develop connective tissues in the body.

Thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, which appear next on the label, are all B vitamins. They help with proper functioning of nerves, normal appetite, good digestion and healthy skin.

Finally, there are calcium and iron. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. When paired with phosphorus, it is largely responsible for the hardness of bones and teeth.

Iron is required by the body for making hemoglobin, the part of the blood that carries oxygen to the cells and carbon dioxide away from them. Iron also helps the cells get energy from food.

By looking at nutritional labels, you will see that foods differ in the number of calories provided and the nutrients they contain. With the exception of a few foods that have vitamins and minerals added, no food provides the recommended daily allowance of all nutrients listed.

Use food labels to provide the most nutritious meals you can for yourself and your family.

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