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Understanding Nutritional Information and Labels

Health & Wellness: The Right Stuff

Given the overwhelming number of fad diets, “all-natural” options, and nutritional supplements available, knowing how to “eat right” can sometimes seem impossible. Fortunately, food product labels can provide a lot of useful information. Be aware, however, that labels and packaging also contain a lot of advertising copy meant to sell rather than inform.

This article will help you understand how to sort through all of the available information so that you can make smart choices.

Check the Nutrition Facts

The nutrition facts included on all food packages can help you understand what makes up the food you are eating. When reading these labels, start with serving size section.

The calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, etc. all contribute to the serving size. On this label, one serving (two tortillas) has 110 calories.

If someone ate all of the servings in this six-serving package, he or she would consume 660 calories.

Watch Out for These Nutrients

Monitor grams of total fat, cholesterol and sodium consumed closely because these nutrients can be harmful if consumed in large quantities. For example, over-indulging in high-fat, high-cholesterol food has been shown to contribute to arteriosclerosis and heart disease.

Limit total fat to no more than 45-78 grams per day, with no more than 16 grams of saturated fat, and less than two grams of trans fat, and less than 300 mg cholesterol (based on a 2,000-calorie/day diet). To help lower blood cholesterol, replace saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, and liquid vegetable oils.

Current U.S. recommendations call for a maximum of 2,300 milligrams of sodium (one teaspoon of salt) a day or 1,500 milligrams of sodium (two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt) for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke or a history of congestive heart failure.

Carbohydrates, Sugars, and Fiber

Carbohydrates are a necessary part of our daily diets because carbohydrates are what provide energy to our bodies. Avoid foods with added sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose, corn or maple syrup), which add calories but no other nutrients. These sugars contribute to weight gain and heighten the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Instead, try to eat mostly healthy, wholesome carbohydrates, such as:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans/legumes
  • Whole grains

Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate. Fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes are the best sources of fiber. Studies have shown fiber helps reduce the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and diverticulitis.


Protein makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. Amino acids, the body’s basic building blocks, are the raw material for all proteins. The body does not store amino acids. As a result, it requires a daily supply of amino acids to make new protein. When choosing protein, look for no-fat or low-fat sources.

Protein is found in:

  • Meat (choose lean cuts, i.e. minimal fat content)
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Dry beans
  • Milk and milk products (yogurt, cheese, etc)

Vitamins, Minerals and Other Nutrients

Vitamins and minerals promote good health and may protect individuals from disease. Many people do not get enough vitamins A and C, potassium, calcium, and iron, so consumers should choose foods and brands with higher % DV (percent of daily value) of these nutrients.

Remember, foods with high calorie content but low nutritional value are poor choices. Always compare the calories to the nutrients to determine if you’re making a healthy food choice. Good food choices would include fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes (beans, lentils, etc.) low or reduced fat dairy products, lean meats, fish and poultry.

Percentage of Daily Value

The percentage of daily value (% DV) is a general guide to help you relate nutrients in a serving of food to their contribution to your total daily diet. It informs you as to whether a food is high or low in nutrients (5% or less is low, 20% or more is high). Use the % DV to make dietary trade-offs with other foods.

Be aware that the % DV is based on a 2,000-calorie diet, so you may need to make adjustments if you have a different calorie requirement.

Commonly Used Nutrition Terms and Their Meanings

Manufacturers use many terms to attract consumers to their particular product. The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, strictly defines the following terms.

Term Definition
Calorie free Less than 5 calories
Sugar free Less than 0.5 grams of sugar
Fat free Less than 0.5 grams of fat
Low fat 3 grams of fat or less
Reduced fat or less fat At least 25% less fat than the regular product
Low in saturated fat 1 gram of saturated fat or less with not more than 15% of the calories coming from saturated fat
Lean Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol
Light (or lite) At least 1/3 fewer calories or no more than half the fat of the regular product, or no more than half the sodium of the regular product
Cholesterol free Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams (or less) of saturated fat
Low cholesterol 20 or fewer milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
Reduced cholesterol At least 25% less cholesterol than the regular product and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
Sodium free or no sodium sodium Less than 5 milligrams of sodium and no sodium chloride in ingredients
Very low sodium 35 milligrams or less of sodium
Low sodium 140 milligrams or less of sodium
Reduced or less sodium At least 25% less sodium than the regular produce
High fiber 5 grams or more of fiber
Good source of fiber 2.5 to 4.9 grams of fiber

For more information on understanding nutritional labels, LocalGovU offers a detailed online course on this topic as well as several other Health & Wellness topics including: “Stress and Your Health”, “High Blood Pressure — Reducing Your Risks”, and “Eating Right for Health and Fitness” to name a few. Click here to view the full list of Health & Wellness topics or contact us at 866.845.8887 for more information or to set up an account.

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