Saturday, April 19, 2008

Read food nutrition labels closely

By R.J. Ignelzi
Copley News Service

Forget Oprah's latest book club selection. Never mind what's topping the New York Times best-seller list. The must-read for nearly everyone is thought-provoking, empowering and available on nearly every grocery store shelf.

It's the nutrition label on most food products.

While it's not as captivating as a Stephen King or John Grisham novel, reading and utilizing this material on a regular basis may make you and your family healthier.

WELL READ - Your health may depend on how closely you heed your food's nutritional labels. CNS Photo by Crissy Pascual.
"Reading a food label can guide you to better food selections," says Christine Zoumas, a registered dietitian and a senior nutrition researcher at the University of California San Diego Medical Center.

"There are certain nutrients you want to limit, like saturated fat and cholesterol, and other nutrients you want more of, like fiber. By reading the nutrition facts on the labels you can compare different products and make sure you're getting (the healthiest ones)."

PORTION SIZE TIPS - Other keyword: Serving, weight, health, fist, light bulb, mouse, baseball, thumb, dice

However, for many consumers, today's nutrition labels with the long lists of numbers, percentages and stock "nutri-speak" phrases only offer up a heaping helping of confusion. In order for food labels to help you achieve a more healthful diet, you need to be able to translate them into language and concepts that are meaningful to you. That doesn't mean you have to walk around the grocery store with a calculator and a dictionary. By simply zeroing in on a couple of label items and looking at how these fit into your daily diet, you'll get the biggest nutrition bang for your buck.

The first thing you should focus on is the serving size listed at the top of the nutrition facts box.

"Nothing else matters if you don't know what size serving you're talking about," Zoumas says. "In order to interpret all the nutrients and calorie information, you must look at the serving size."

To avoid misleading consumers into believing a food is low in fat or calories by unrealistically reducing the listed serving size (for example, a candy bar that's supposed to count as three servings), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has standardized most food serving sizes.

The agency says the serving sizes must be reasonable portions, in a weight or household measurement that's easy for people to understand, Zoumas explains.

However the listed serving size may not always reflect the portion size people actually consume.

"The (listed) serving size for most drinks is 8 ounces. But, most of us are looking at 16-ounce or 24-ounce drinks. The serving size for Oreos is two cookies. But, for many people, one serving is a lot more than that," says Patti Wooten Swanson, nutrition, family and consumer adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension Service of San Diego County. "You have to take this into account when comparing the calories and other nutrients of different products. If one is larger or smaller than the other it can make a big difference (in nutritional values).

"In addition to noting the calories for a serving, it's important to check out the nutrients you want plenty of - fiber, calcium and vitamin C - and those you want to limit - saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol and sodium.

Nobody expects you to memorize all the recommended daily allowances (RDAs) for each nutrient. Instead, check out how nutrient-rich or -poor a product is by reading the percent of daily values, listed as percentages next to each nutrient.

Based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, the percent of daily values shows how much of a nutrient in one serving contributes to the recommended daily intake of that particular nutrient. So, for example, if you see that the amount of calcium in one serving of a food supplies 38 percent of your calcium needs for one day, you've got a winner. You're more than a third of the way to satisfying your bone-building calcium needs for the day.

However, if you see that a single serving contains 46 percent of the recommended intake of saturated fat, consider putting it back on the shelf. Saturated fat is one of the nutrients we need to limit in our diet, and getting half of the recommended daily amount in one serving is asking for trouble.

People with certain health conditions or concerns should pay close attention to those nutrients that may affect them. Diabetics should concentrate on the sugar and carbohydrate amounts. People with hypertension should focus on keeping the sodium low. Those with heart problems need to watch their saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol grams. And women should look for products offering as much calcium and vitamin D (if listed) as possible.

In addition to offering long lists of numbers and percentages for the nutrient content of a product, food makers can also make nutritional claims. Often found on the front of the package in big, bold lettering, these claims aren't just random advertising hype to help attract shoppers. Regulated by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the claims have to be substantiated by the nutritional facts.

- Serving size: Pay attention to this and the number of servings in the package. The size of the serving on the food package influences all the nutrient amounts listed on the label.

- Calories: The number of calories this food contains for the stated serving size. (You have to burn 3,500 calories to lose one pound of body weight.)

- Percent of Daily Value: Shows how much one serving of a nutrient contributes to the total daily recommended intake of that nutrient for a 2,000-calorie a day diet.

- Total fat: Should make up no more than 20 percent to 35 percent of your total calories. Saturated fat and trans fats raise cholesterol and increase risk of heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 7 percent of total calories as saturated fat or trans-fat. Most fat should come from monounsaturated or polyunsaturated sources (fish, nuts, canola and olive oils).

- Cholesterol: Too much of it in your diet may lead to too much of it in your blood, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. Consume less than 300 milligrams per day. People with heart disease, high LDL (bad) cholesterol levels or who take cholesterol medication should consume less than 200 milligrams per day.

- Sodium: Healthy adults should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day (about one teaspoon). African-Americans, older adults and people with high blood pressure should consume less than 1,500 milligrams per day.

- Total carbohydrates: This listing includes the healthy carbs (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) and the unhealthy or refined carbs (sugar). Try to keep the sugar grams low and load up on the fiber. Adults should eat 21 to 35 grams of fiber daily. Soluble fiber (oatmeal, barley, dried beans) can help lower cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber (whole grains, fruit and vegetables) protects against bowel disorders and may help digestion.

- Protein: The government food safety advisory and regulation panels don't offer any daily value percentages for protein since getting enough of it has not been a problem in the American diet.

- Vitamins and minerals: Only two vitamins (A and C) and two minerals (calcium and iron) are required on the food label. Manufacturers can voluntarily list other vitamins and minerals in the food.

Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this story.

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