How to Read Food Labels

Submitted by SharpHealth Team on Wednesday 13th October 2010
In this article
  • Taking advantage of food labels.
  • The 411 on nutritional information.
  • Deciphering food label lingo.

With the myriad of activities that take up SharpMen’s time on a daily basis, there’s barely time to go to the grocery store — much less to read food labels. However, it may motivate you to know that by simply taking a moment to read a food label can help you lose weight, prevent cancer or ward off heart disease. Worth another look, aren’t they?

Take Advantage of Food Labels

By simply reading food labels, you can create a well-balanced diet without the help of a dietician or doctor. For starters, try limiting your fat intake to fewer than 65 grams per day or 30 percent of your total calories.

Some aspects of food labels are more important that others. Specifically, five food label sections: serving size, calories, total fat, saturated fat and fiber.

Serving Size. Chances are, that handful of potato chips you’re eating is double the serving size you believe it to be. In a bag of Ruffles ® brand potato chips, for example, a one-ounce serving contains 150 calories and 10 grams of fat — and the average bag may amount to more than one serving. Like the slogan says, you can’t have just one.

Are SharpMen simply pigs? Not really. As mentioned above, most food packaging contains more than one serving, and most restaurant servings are double or triple the normal serving size — SharpMen may simply have been conditioned to eat more than they actually should. To remedy this, try measuring the serving size in a bowl, and then eat just that amount each time. Alternatively, to avoid coming off as an obsessive freak on your next dinner date, simply mentally cut your portion in half, and take the rest for the following day’s lunch.

Calories. The calories section — although possibly the most important part of a food label — tends to be overlooked. Phrases and words such as "fat free" and "light" often pull attention from calories to fat grams. However, if a fat-free product uses simple carbohydrates (which are effectively processed into sugar by your body) instead of fat, you may as well be eating spoonfuls of sugar.

Total fat. An excessive intake of fat is one of the biggest health risks associates with the North American lifestyle. Not only does fat make you, well … fat, it can also contribute to the development of heart disease and cancer. The average SharpMan should try to limit his consumption to between 45 and 65 grams of fat per day. By counting fat grams, it’s easy to keep track of how much fat you’re eating. As an example, at 41 grams of fat, the typical McDonald’s order of a Big Mac and fries doesn’t leave much room for any other daily fat intake.

Saturated fat. Otherwise known as the "bad" fat, saturated fat is a hidden culprit in raising cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of heart disease. In fact, when you eat saturated fat, your body uses it to make cholesterol. Red meat, milk and butter often are cited as three of the biggest saturated fat carriers. But products like ground turkey and ground round, as well as skim milk, can be used in place of the originals. One option is to eat products with fewer than two grams of saturated fat per serving.

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Fiber. Fiber is not only one of the most important nutrients, but also one of the most overlooked. Although the average American should be eating 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day, most consume 10 grams or fewer. Fiber is critical in digesting food, and lowers your chance of getting cancer. Easy sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables and oat-based foods.

Deciphering Food Label Lingo

What’s the difference between "low fat," "lean" and "light?" Believe it or not, there is a distinction, and it’s more distinct than you might think.

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"Light" means the food has half the fat and one-third the calories, or half the salt, of its regular product.

"Free," as in "fat free" or "sugar free," indicates none of the "free" substance is in the product.

"Low" is used on products that don’t exceed the dietary guidelines for fat, saturated fat, sodium or calories for the "low" substance in the product.

"Lean" describes the fat content of meat, poultry and seafood. It must have fewer than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 or fewer grams of saturated fat and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.

"Reduced" means the product must contain at least 25 percent fewer calories or fat than the original product.

Do the Math

Food labels are not always what they appear. In fact, they can be downright confusing. Take a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ® ice cream, for example. There are very few who can honestly say they haven’t eaten a pint of the delectable treat. And very few have batted an eye at the 310 calories per serving. But, how many would have opted for something else if time had been taken to calculate the 1,240 calories they actually consumed? Here’s the scoop:

One pint Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ®

  • Serving size: 1/2 cup
  • Serving per container: 4
  • Calories: 310 x 4 = 1,240
  • Fat: 19g x 4 = 76g
  • Saturated fat: 11g x 4 =44g
  • Cholesterol: 55 mg x 4 = 220mg

® Chunky Monkey is a registered trademark of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc.

This article last updated on Wednesday 13th October 2010
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