The 9 Most Common Mistakes to Avoid When Reading a Food Label

Nutrients

Fat, Sugar, Sodium and Carbohydrate

The sections on a food label shows the name of a nutrient and the amount of that nutrient provided by one serving of food. You may need to know this information, especially if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or are eating a diet that restricts certain nutrients such as sodium or carbohydrates.

Food labels also include information about how much sugar and protein is in the food. If you are following a low-sugar diet or you're monitoring your protein intake, it's easy to spot how much of those nutrients are contained in one serving.

Vitamins, Minerals and Other Information

The light purple part of the label lists nutrients, vitamins and minerals in the food and their percent daily values. Try to average 100% DV every day for vitamins A and C, calcium, iron and fiber. Do the opposite with fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol. Try to eat less than 100% DV of these.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Reading a Food Label

Until you become accustomed to reading food labels, it's easy to become confused. Avoid these common mistakes when reading labels:

-A label may say that the food is reduced fat or reduced sodium. That means that the amount of fat or sodium has been reduced by 25% from the original product. It doesn't mean, however, that the food is low in fat or sodium. For example, if a can of soup originally had 1,000 milligrams of sodium, the reduced sodium product would still be a high-sodium food.

-Don't confuse the % DV for fat with the percentage of calories from fat. If the % DV is 15% that doesn't mean that 15% of the calories comes from fat. Rather, it means that you're using up 15% of all the fat you need for a day with one serving (based on a meal plan of 2,000 calories per day).

-Don't make the mistake of assuming that the amount of sugar on a label means that the sugar has been added. For example, milk naturally has sugar, which is called lactose. But that doesn't mean you should stop drinking milk because milk is full of other important nutrients including calcium.

Reading Label Lingo

In addition to requiring that packaged foods contain a Nutrition Facts label, the FDA also regulates the use of phrases and terms used on the product packaging. Here's a list of common phrases you may see on your food packaging and what they actually mean.

No fat or fat free - Contains less than 1/2 gram of fat per serving Lower or reduced fat: Contains at least 25 percent less per serving than the reference food. (An example might be reduced fat cream cheese, which would have at least 25 percent less fat than original cream cheese.)

Low fat - Contains less than 3 grams of fat per serving.

Lite - Contains 1/3 the calories or 1/2 the fat per serving of the original version or a similar product.

No calories or calorie free - Contains less than 5 calories per serving.

Low calories - Contains 1/3 the calories of the original version or a similar product.

Sugar free - Contains less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving.

Reduced sugar - at least 25% less sugar per serving than the reference food.

No preservatives - Contains no preservatives (chemical or natural).

No preservatives added - Contains no added chemicals to preserve the product. Some of these products may contain natural preservatives.

Low sodium - Contains less than 140 mgs of sodium per serving.

No salt or salt free - Contains less than 5 mgs of sodium per serving.

High fiber - 5 g or more per serving (Foods making high-fiber claims must meet the definition for low fat, or the level of total fat must appear next to the high-fiber claim).

Good source of fiber - 2.5 g to 4.9 g. per serving.

More or added fiber - Contains at least 2.5 g more per serving than the reference food.

With a little practice, you will be able to put your new found knowledge about food labeling to work. Reassess your diet and decide what needs to be changed. Start by eliminating the foods that don't measure-up to your nutritional wants and needs, and replacing them with more nutritional substitutes.

And while you're at it, visit the FDA website and learn about the new labeling requirements, including those for "trans" fat. Like saturated fats, trans fats can raise levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and increase your risk of heart disease. The "Nutrition Facts" panel on food packaging must provide this information beginning January 1, 2006, but most manufacturers will start providing it sooner.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to medically diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Consult a health care practitioner before beginning any health care program.

Emily Clark is editor at Lifestyle Health News and Medical Health News where you can find the most up-to-date advice and information on many medical, health and lifestyle topics.

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