How to Read Food Labels

18 May

Food labels contain many useful facts about the contents of packaged food and can help you select healthy foods when shop- ping for groceries. Nutrition labeling provides information about ingredients (in descending order of weight), serving size, number of calories, nutrient content, and how a food fits into your overall diet. The most informative part of any food label is the nutrition facts panel, because it shows not only the number of servings in a package but also the amount and percent of daily values of nutrients such as total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and carbohydrates. This label also indicates the fiber and sugar content of the food inside the package.
The bottom of the nutrition facts panel lists the percent of daily values for vitamins A and C, and for calcium and iron. This portion of the panel tells you that the food inside the package

contains a certain percentage of your recommended daily allowance of these nutrients. This area of the panel also shows the daily recommended values of such nutrients as total fat and cholesterol in a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. You need to pay special attention to the listed nutrients that pertain to your particular health status and family health history (see page 80). For example, if you have a family history of heart disease, you will probably be most interested in the per- cent of daily value of fat listed on the label.

When reading food labels, look carefully at the health and nutrient-content claims on the package. For example, some labels claim that a food is “light” or “low-fat.” The US government allows food manufacturers to make such claims only if the food meets the following strict guidelines:


Do You Need Vitamin and Mineral Supplements?

Many men take nutritional supplements because they believe that certain vita- mins or minerals provide health benefits or help them increase athletic perform- ance or endurance. But if you are otherwise healthy, you probably don’t need to take a supplement as long as you follow the Food Guide Pyramid recommenda- tions for a balanced diet. It’s best to obtain nutrients from a wide variety of foods rather than from a vitamin or mineral supplement because your body may not absorb the vitamins from supplements as effectively as those obtained from food. Also,  most  people  can  obtain  the  suggested recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamins and minerals by consuming a varied diet. For example, the RDA of vitamin C, which is 60 milligrams, can be obtained by eat- ing five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Smoking increases the need for vitamin C, however. If you smoke, you should be getting 100 milligrams of vitamin C per day.

It’s especially unwise to take in large amounts of vitamins and minerals in excess of the recommended daily allowances over prolonged periods of time. There is no convincing evidence that taking megadoses of a particular vitamin

will make you healthier. In fact, consuming huge amounts of certain vitamins can actually harm your health. For example, doses of vitamin C above 1,000 mil- ligrams per day can cause nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and even kidney stones.

However, certain people do need to take supplements. You may need to take a vitamin and mineral supplement if you:

•  regularly skip meals

•  are on a very low-calorie or low-carbohydrate diet for long periods

•  are an older person who finds it hard to eat as much as you should

•  eat a vegan diet (a vegetarian diet that omits dairy products and eggs)

•  take medication that interferes with vitamin or mineral absorption

•  are lactose intolerant and have been decreasing your calcium intake

If you fall into one of these categories, talk to your doctor about taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement. Even if you eat a balanced diet, a daily multivitamin won’t harm you. But remember that taking a vitamin and mineral supplement is no substitute for eating a balanced, high-fiber, low-fat diet con- taining plenty of grains, vegetables, and fruits.

What Are Antioxidants?

Much interest has focused on the potential of antioxidants to fight disease and slow the aging process. But how reliable are these claims? How do antioxidants work?

Free radicals are unstable molecules that have an unpaired electron. They cause oxidation (a process whereby oxygen changes, damages, or breaks down cells) in your body, similar to the oxidation that occurs when metal rusts, as they seek stability by taking an electron from a surrounding molecule in a cell for themselves. The attacked molecule then has an unpaired electron, becoming a new free radical. The chain reaction continues indefinitely. Free radicals destroy DNA, and DNA destruction is thought to be one of the processes that triggers aging. Free radicals also can interfere with other processes in cells, causing cell changes that eventually can lead to cancer.

Antioxidants are compounds in foods that inhibit the oxidation caused by free radicals. The vitamins C and E and beta carotene (which converts to vitamin A in your body) and the minerals magnesium, copper, and zinc are antioxidants in foods that have shown promise in slowing down or preventing the chronic health problems, such as heart disease and cancer, that often accompany aging. Anti- oxidants also may help the body fight infection.

Vitamin E is found in nuts, seeds, and oils such as olive, peanut, and canola oil. You can increase your intake of beta carotene by eating more orange and deep yellow vegetables and fruits such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, can- taloupe, apricots, and winter squash. Boost your vitamin C intake by consuming

citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemons, or limes), berries, bell peppers, pota- toes, broccoli, and cabbage.

The scientific evidence is strongest for the healthful effects of vitamin E and weakest for vitamin C. Experts stress that it is best to obtain antioxidant vita- mins naturally, from your diet, rather than by taking supplements, especially in large amounts, until large-scale, long-term studies prove otherwise. As with vita- min and mineral supplements in general, taking antioxidant supplements cannot make up for the inadequacies of a poor diet. If you already have a health problem such as heart disease, taking antioxidants should never replace the goals of main- taining normal blood pressure, improving your cholesterol profile, or stopping smoking.

The best way to take in antioxidants is to eat a varied, balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The foods listed below are good sources of antioxidants. It is important to note that the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that con- tain antioxidants also provide fiber. When you include these foods in your diet, you get the benefits of fiber along with the benefits of antioxidants.


Most nutrients are absorbed and used by your body, but fiber passes through your digestive system without being absorbed. Still, it remains an important nutrient because it provides the bulk that helps your digestive system function properly and can protect against certain serious diseases.

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both types help prevent constipation, and soluble fiber has been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer, diabetes, digestive disorders, and heart disease. Foods rich in soluble fiber include oat bran, oatmeal, beans, peas, rice bran, barley, and citrus fruits. Foods high in insoluble fiber are whole-wheat breads and cereals, wheat bran, rye, whole-grain rice, cabbage, carrots, and brussels sprouts. A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits can easily provide the recommended 25 grams of fiber each day.

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