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How to Read Food Labels

written by: Nicky LaMarco • edited by: Rhonda Callow • updated: 7/1/2010

While we are constantly bombarded with ensuring we eat well-balanced meals or only consuming healthy portions of certain types of food, we are not always privy to how to read food labels.

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    Popular Health Claims

    how to read food labels Food packaging contains popular health claims such as “fat free,” “heart healthy,” or “no cholesterol.” Discerning the meanings of each of these claims can aid in understanding, which claims may work best for your nutritional needs. The FDA does require that all food manufacturers have to provide carefully researched evidence that their foods fall into specific categories. However, a misinterpretation of these labels may not help but even hinder your nutritional intake.

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    How to Read Food Labels

    Reduced Fat or Less Fat – a food manufacturer that makes this claim about a certain package food is stating that a product has 25% less fat than the same serving as the “full fat” brand.

    Light – usage of this terminology indicates that one serving of the light version has at least 50% less fat than the same serving of the regular version.

    Low Fat – the words low fat refer to a product that has less than 3 grams of fat per serving.

    Saturated Fat Free – Less than half a gram of saturated fat and 0.5 grams of trans-fatty acids per serving.

    Cholesterol Free – Foods with less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per each serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat per each serving.

    Low Cholesterol – Foods with 20 milligrams or less cholesterol per each serving, and 2 grams or less saturated fat per each serving.

    Reduced Calorie - At least 25% fewer calories per each serving than the original version of food to which it is compared.

    Low Calorie - 40 calories or less per serving.

    Lean and Extra Lean - Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 g of saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol per 100 gram serving of any type of meat, poultry or seafood.

    Sugar-FreeLess than half a gram of sugar per serving.

    High, Rich-In or Excellent Source of – 20% or more of the Daily Value for the particular nutrient listed per serving.

    Good Source of, More or Added – These claims tout that the food provides 10% more of the Daily Value for the particular nutrient listed than the food to which it is compared.

    Low Source of – Essentially these foods may require frequent consumption of the food without exceeding the Daily Value for the listed nutrient.

    Healthy – Often refers to a food low in fat, saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium. These foods contain at least 10% of the Daily Values for vitamins A and C, iron, calcium protein and fiber.

    Gluten Free – Individuals who have developed allergies to gluten may require gluten free foods. These foods are free of the ingredients that are derived from cereals, which contain gluten such as wheat, barley, rye and even oats. This would also include foods, which uses gluten as an additive or thickening agent.

    Natural – foods that do not contain artificial ingredients.

    Organic – Within the U.S. there are varying levels of organic labels. Food products that are made entirely of organic ingredients can be labeled 100% organic. Foods with at least 95% organic ingredients may use the word organic. Foods with at least 70% organic ingredients may be termed “made with organic ingredients".

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    It is important to pay close attention to all health information on packaging, including the small print. Just because a product is low in cholesterol does not mean it is low in fat or calories. The FDA does require that each of these foods meet the above criteria or the claims cannot be printed on the packaging.