How to Read Nutrition Labels

Today's nutrition labels can help you choose healthy foods for your family.

It only takes a few seconds to read the nutrition label on most food packages. But the health benefits to your diet can last a lifetime. Here's what you need to know.

Serving size: This tells you the amount of food used to calculate the nutrients shown on the package. When comparing products, be sure they are assuming the same portion size.

Calories: This number shows calories per serving, not necessarily per package. If you are going to consume the entire box, can, or candy bar, be sure to adjust the calorie number as needed. The "Calories from Fat" section can help you identify foods that have a high percentage of fat.

Daily Values: These numbers give you a quick indication of the amount of various nutrients -- including fat -- in each serving. The higher the number, the more of that nutrient. Remember that more is not always better. Extra vitamin C is fine, but extra fat and sodium isn't. Because Daily Values are given in percents, your total daily intake for each should be in the neighborhood of 100.

Fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium: Most of us consume too much of these nutrients. It's OK to fall below 100 percent of Daily Value each day for this group. Note: not all labels list trans fat, a type of processed vegetable oil that is linked to heart disease.

Carbohydrates, sugar, fiber, and protein: If you are watching carbs, this is one section you'll want to pay attention to. For the rest of us, the rules are simple: less sugar is good and more fiber is good. Protein is usually unimportant; most people get far more protein than they need.

Beneficial vitamins and minerals: The nutrients listed in the lower box are critical to your health. Unless you have a medical restriction, the higher these values, the better the food is for you.

The fine print. The tiny type at the bottom of most food labels tells you how the daily values were calculated and give you some information on adjusting the numbers to your own situation. It never changes, so you can safely ignore this information after you've read it once or twice.

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