24 Mar 2014 01:18:36 MDT Written by: Administrator

Deciphering Food Labels

There are a number of medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, even 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.

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:

  • total calories
  • calories from fat
  • total fat
  • saturated fat
  • trans fat
  • cholesterol
  • sodium
  • total carbohydrate
  • dietary fiber
  • sugars
  • protein
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin C
  • calcium
  • iron

Food labels may also contain information on polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, potassium, soluble fiber, and other vitamins and minerals.

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.

Want to learn more about serving sizes? Read more in our Health Library.