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How should I read the Nutrition Facts panel on foods?

The Nutrition Facts panel, required on most packaged foods in the United States, is one of the most informative and detailed such labels worldwide. Taking a little time to become familiar with it can be a very empowering way to evaluate and compare foods’ nutritional values. However, it is important to be aware that it is not comprehensive and that each person must interpret it individually. The intent of the Nutrition Facts panel is to provide nutrition information, per serving of food, deemed pertinent to individuals with particular health conditions or nutritional needs, as well as to provide consumers with the means to make wise food choices. A few examples of the types of information provided include:
  • cholesterol and saturated fat content of foods, meaningful to people concerned with cardiovascular health (which means virtually every American!)
  • sodium content of foods, for individuals with sodium-sensitive high blood pressure
  • dietary fiber content of foods, for those trying to increase their fiber intake (again, this should include virtually every American!)
  • “Percentage Recommended Daily Intake” (or “%RDI”) for all recognized essential nutrients, based on a diet of a particular calorie count (usually 2000), which must be interpreted according to each individual’s average daily calorie intake

The Nutrition Facts panel provides a bounty of detail that pertains to “an average serving” of the food, the amount of which is defined at the top of the label. This means that the information provided must be quantitatively compared to how much you actually eat of that food. For example, if “an average serving” of a cracker product is FOUR crackers but you actually eat TEN crackers, you must remember that you are receiving 2.5 times as much of every nutrient on the label as is listed—sodium, cholesterol, fat, calories, vitamins, fiber, and so on.

The following nutrients are required on the Nutrition Facts panel if the nutrient is present above a certain defined minimum level per defined serving of the food:

  • total calories
  • total fat, calories from fat, calories from saturated fat, saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat
  • cholesterol
  • sodium and potassium
  • total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, sugar, sugar alcohols (such as xylitol and sorbitol), and other carbohydrate (the difference between total carbohydrate and the sum of dietary fiber, sugars, and sugar alcohols)
  • protein
  • vitamin A and percent as beta-carotene
  • vitamin C, calcium, iron, and all other recognized essential vitamins and minerals

Percentages of Daily Recommended Values (DRV) for some nutrients are based on the following current public health recommendations for adults:

  • fat calories should comprise no more than 30% of total calories and should total no more than 65g daily
  • saturated fat calories should comprise no more than 10% of total calories and should total no more than 20 g daily
  • carbohydrate calories should comprise at least 60% of carbohydrates
  • protein calories should comprise 10% of total calories
  • individuals should consume 11.5g fiber per every 1,000 calories consumed
  • individuals should consume no more than 300mg cholesterol daily
  • individuals should consume no more than 2,400mg sodium daily

Despite the considerable detail provided by the Nutrition Facts panel, other useful information has not yet been included, such as:

  • subtotals of omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (the only fats that are essential for human health)
  • “trans-fats" also called hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats (unnatural fats created by chemical hydrogenation)
  • the glycemic indices of carbohydrate-containing foods (to provide a comparative gauge of how quickly the food releases its energy)

All in all, however, the Nutrition Facts panel is an excellent tool that can help you make deliberate and informed decisions about the foods you choose to eat.

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