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Understanding Labels and Health Claims

By Chad Tackett

At home, you can eat only what is available. For your weight management program to be successful, you must master the art of low-fat shopping. If what you have in your refrigerator and cupboards is junk food, chances are you'll eat that in place of healthy, low-fat foods that satisfy and provide energy.

Before you head to the store, you should have a clear understanding of how to read labels so you can make the healthiest, wisest choices of foods you will enjoy. The following are key words for properly understanding food product labels:

Serving size: The amount of food the information refers to.

Servings per container: The number of servings in the entire product or package.

Percent daily values: Shows how a food fits into an overall daily diet based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories.

Calories: The total number of calories in one serving of this food.

Calories from fat: The total number of calories from fat in one serving of this food.

Total fat: The weight of fat (in grams) in one serving of this food.

Saturated fat: The weight of saturated fat (in grams) in one serving of this food.

Sodium: The weight of sodium (in milligrams) in one serving of this food.

Protein: The weight of protein (in grams) in one serving of this food.

Total carbohydrates: The weight of both complex and simple carbohydrates (in grams) in one serving of this food.

Sugars: The weight of simple carbohydrates (in grams) in one serving of this food; to find out how many complex carbohydrates are in the food simply subtract sugars from total carbohydrates.

After you have a clear understanding of the key label words, there are five other important values you will want to consider before concluding that the food product is a healthy, low-fat food.

1. Check the List of Ingredients:
Ingredients are listed in descending order according to their quantity in that food. The first three or four ingredients listed usually make up most of the product. Keep in mind, however, that fat and sugar come in many different forms; even if they are not one of the first three ingredients, the food can still be very high in fat and/or sugar. Other "names" of fat include hydrogenated vegetable shortening, butter, margarine, oil (coconut, safflower, palm, etc.), lecithin, lard, and cream solids. Other names of sugars include fructose, honey, corn sweeteners, molasses, maltose, corn syrup, fructose, galactose, glucose, and dextrose. If only one of these names appears among the first few ingredients on the label, or if several of them are listed throughout the label, this food is likely to be high in fat or sugar.

2. Pay Attention to Total Fat and Saturated Fat:
When checking the label of a food, always check the line that reads "total fat." Most experts believe you should get no more than 25 percent of total daily calories from fat. For someone who weighs 160 pounds, that would be about 72 grams a day. So before purchasing any food, check the total fat to see if that product fits into your eating plan. Right below the "total fat" line is "saturated fat." Again, you want this number to be very low, since this type of fat is linked to obesity and heart disease. No more than 10 percent of your calories should come from saturated fats. For the average person, this is between 7-10 grams a day.

3. Figure Out the Percentage of Calories from Fat:
In addition to listing the ingredients, labels give you the information you need to determine the percentage of calories from fat in a specific food product. Knowing this is actually far more important than simply knowing the number of grams of fat in the food product. Just as you want less than 25 percent of your total daily calories to be from fat, you also want to try to eat foods that get less than 25 percent of their total calories from fat. Because a food product has a low number of fat grams, it is not necessarily a low-fat, healthy food. Take, for example, a reduced-fat whipping cream. Many people assume that since this product only has 1.5 grams of fat per serving that it is a healthy dessert topping (often justifying double or triple the amount on their dessert). However, this product contains actually 45 percent fat. On the other hand, a common nutrition bar has 5 grams of fat per serving. Many dieters would not touch this product for fear of so much fat, when, in actuality, this product contains only 12 percent fat. How can a food that only has 1.5 grams of fat per serving have a higher percentage of fat calories than a product that contains 5 grams of fat. It is quite simple: The whipped topping only contains 30 calories per serving whereas the nutrition bar contains 380. The nutrition bar is packed with protein and carbohydrates, giving the product a lot more nutritious food value and more calories. Since the whipped topping only contains 30 calories, it has very little nutritional value and quite a bit of fat relative to the total volume of food and calories. When checking labels, be sure to figure out the percentage of fat calories in addition to the number of fat grams. To determine the percentage of calories from fat of a food product, look for two important numbers: calories per serving and total grams of fat per serving. Since you want to know what percentage of the total calories are fat calories, you must first convert the grams of fat into calories. Remember, there are 9 calories per gram of fat.

To calculate the fat percentage of the food:
a) Multiply the number of grams of fat by the number 9 (9 calories per gram of fat).
b) Divide this number by the total calories per serving.
c) The result is the percentage of fat calories (should be less than 25).

last update: February 2009

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this material to diagnose or treat a health condition or disease without consulting with your healthcare provider.
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