October 6, 2011
Looking at Labels
You know by now that you can't trust most of the marketing claims splashed across product labels, and that it's essential to check the Nutrition Facts to see what you're really getting.
But the Nutrition Facts label can be a bit overwhelming if you don't know exactly what you should be looking for. Is 40 milligrams of sodium in a can of Coke Zero a lot or a little? Is 32 grams of sugar high or low for a carton of fat-free Yoplait?
It's nearly impossible to specify exactly what to look for on every label of every product, since the stats that matter will vary with the type of food. The key nutrients to consider when comparing cheeses, for example, are different than comparing crackers or bread.
So here's a rundown of all that's on a nutrition facts label, including reference ranges and upper limits, as well as what information doesn't really matter much at all.
Read this carefully and consider what it really means before you scan the nutritional values below it. This may seem obvious, but it's not -- what you may intutively regard as a serving may be much larger than what the manufacturer defines as one. Even pre-packaged items that appear to be a "single serving" can often count as two or more servings on the label. And when it comes to foods such as cereal, chips and crackers, the serving sizes may be unrealistically small. That half-cup serving of ice cream? It's about what fits into a single cupcake wrapper.
Depending on the person, an appropriate range may be 100 to 300 calories for a snack, and 300 to 500 calories or more for a meal.
I almost never look at total fat on a nutrition label -- it's far less important than the type of fat that the product contains.
Research shows that different types of saturated fat may not impact cholesterol levels in the same way. One of the types of saturated fat in chocolate, for example, appears to have a neutral affect on cholesterol. Still, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that we get less than 10 percent of our calories from saturated fat, and less than 7 percent to further reduce the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association says to limit saturated fat to less than 7 percent of total daily calories. For a 1,800-calorie diet, this 7 percent to 10 percent limit translates to 14 to 20 grams of saturated fat per day.
Trans fats have a doubly negative effect: Not only do they appear to increase our "bad" LDL cholesterol, but they can also reduce our "good" HDL cholesterol. Look for products that list trans fat at zero or as close to it as possible.
Though research shows that cholesterol from food doesn't appear to raise our blood levels of LDL cholesterol as once thought, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and the AHA guidelines both recommend that we limit cholesterol intake to no more than 300 milligrams daily. One large egg has about 186 milligrams of cholesterol, and a mere 1.5 grams of saturated fat.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines and the AHA recommend an upper limit of 1,500 mg for most of the population (although people who lose large amounts of sweat through exercise or work in a hot, humid environment may need more). So that 40 milligrams in your can of Coke Zero -- not such a big deal. But the 800-plus milligrams that you can find in a single frozen dinner can be much more problematic.
The guidelines for carbohydrate consumption vary widely by person, activity and weight goals. With my clients, the lower range I usually go is about 1 carb gram per pound of healthy/ideal body weight; it is usually higher, as much as 2-3 carb grams per pound or more for those who exercise often and at a high intensity. Whatever your target, it's important to keep carb counts in perspective when checking labels. To with: 15 grams of carbohydrate are about what you get in a regular slice of white bread. So that Lean Cuisine with 62 grams of carbohydrate gives you the equivalent of four slices of bread.
Fiber is mostly found in foods such as whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, as well as products that are made with these ingredients, but you won't typically find it in foods such as meats, milk, cheeses and oils. Look for at least 3 to 5 grams of fiber per serving. And if you're familiar with fiber sources, scan the ingredient list as well to ensure that the majority is from naturally occurring fiber, not just isolated fibers such as inulin or chicory root.
The AHA recommends that we limit added sugars to 25 grams daily for women and 37 grams daily for men. Unfortunately, Nutrition Facts labels don't differentiate between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars (such as those from fruit or milk), so it's up to us to look at the ingredient list to see where they're coming from.
Protein needs vary by person, although I typically recommend that my clients aim for 0.5 to 1 gram of protein per pound of ideal body weight (depending on activity level). Protein matters more on the Nutrition Facts labels of foods such as meats, seafood and dairy products, and is less important for foods such as fruits, veggies and many grains. For these foods, keep the focus on fiber, with minimal added sugar.
The recommendations for calcium are in milligrams -- about 1,000 to 1,200 for the majority of adults. But Nutrition Facts labels list calcium content as a percentage of daily value, based on 1,000 milligrams. So at least the math is easy: a carton of Greek yogurt that provides 20 percent of the daily value for calcium means that it has 200 milligrams of calcium; a cup of milk with 30 percent of the daily value for calcium has 300 milligrams.
Posted by Lisa at October 6, 2011 5:53 AM
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