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Are you getting fooled by food labels? Learn what those percentages are telling you.

November 26, 2012

The other day, I was talking to a gentleman about a food label. He was telling me that it was a low fat product because it was 18% fat. It was a large chocolate chip cookie, so I had to take a closer look. The At 250 calories and 12 grams of fat, the cookies was 44% fat. It dawned on me that he was looking at the % daily value for fat - and was misreading the label.

This made me quickly realize one important fact: we are not getting our point across with food labels. People are being misled confused by the % daily value on the label and don’t really understand what it means.

It is helpful to understand food labels so you can make an educated decision about your food choices at the grocery store. Where do you start?

Start at the top with the Nutrition Facts

The serving size indicates the amount in a serving and the number of servings in the container. The container often may hold more than one serving. If you eat more than one serving, make sure you multiply the calories (and all other values) by the number of servings you eat.

The label shows the total calories and calories from fat in one serving. This product contains 250 calories per cup. If you eat the entire package (2 cups = 2 servings), you will consume 500 calories.

You can easily determine the amount of fat in the product by looking at the calories from fat. This product is almost ½ fat with 110 fat calories out of 250 total calories, so 110/250 or 44%.

The middle of the label lists the amount of different nutrients found in the product

The area in yellow indicates nutrients to limit in your diet. Fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium are nutrients that can contribute to chronic disease like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure and should be limited.

Dietary fiber, calcium, iron and vitamins A & C, highlighted in blue, are important nutrients for Americans to increase in their diets.

But what do the percentages in purple mean? Those are the % Daily Value. The % daily value is not the percent of fat or carbohydrate in the product. It is actually a percentage based on recommended levels of nutrients for a 2000 calorie diet.

Confused yet? Look at the very bottom of the label

It usually contains a notation with the recommended daily values for a 2000 calorie diet. For a person to eat healthy at 2000 calories- there are set nutrient goals to reach:

  • fat 65 to less than grams/day
  • saturated fat to less than 20 grams
  • cholesterol to less than 300 mg
  • sodium to less than 2400 mg
  • carbohydrate to 300 g
  • dietary fiber to 25 g
The percent daily value is way to determine how close you are to meeting the above nutrient goals. Imagine it is like a budget. The daily values are your budgeted amounts for the day. The % daily value shows you the percent of your budget you used up by eating the product. For example, if you eat this product (12 grams fat) you will eat 12 of the recommended 65 grams of fat – or 18%-- and 3 of the recommended 20 grams of saturated fat (15% of your budget).

The percent daily value is a useful guide to determine if a product is low or high in a specific nutrient.

  • If the % daily value is 5% or less it is low in that nutrient.
  • If the % daily value is 20% or more, it is high in that nutrient.
The above product is higher in fat, calcium and sodium and lower in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron and fiber.

Plain Yogurt - contains no added sugars

Fruit Yogurt - contains added sugars

Lastly, the ingredient list is very useful in determining the ingredients used to make the product. Ingredients are listed according to weight (from most to least). Both the yogurt products above have milk as the first ingredient, so the yogurt is mostly milk.The ingredients list also helps to identify added sugars, allergens or hydrogenated (trans) fats.

Next time you are at the grocery store, try using the nutrition label and the % daily value to guide you in making your decisions. It may be the deciding factor for which foods make it into your grocery cart and which foods stay on the shelf.

I also think it's important to be aware of what lengths food companies go to to tell consumers what they want to hear, whether or not is true. Make yourself aware of the myths so you know what you're putting in your body and your family's body! Check out "10 Food Label Lies" to educate yourself.

Ever been fooled by a label? Share your story!



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