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Nutrition Labels Decoded

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Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2014 10:00 pm | Updated: 1:32 am, Mon Jan 13, 2014.

(Family Features) Take a trip to the grocery store and you'll encounter miles of aisles stocked with thousands of food products. Every product has a story to tell or better yet, sell. Information printed on packages is helpful but it's often confusing and even a bit misleading.

While lists of ingredients and the Nutrition Facts panel are there to help shoppers choose foods to fit their nutritional needs, it's not always easy to interpret. Learning how to decode the jumble of numbers and percentages is the first step in shopping for healthier foods.

"The best guide for making decisions affecting your diet is the nutrition facts panel, which is regulated by the FDA and for meats and poultry by the USDA," said Carolyn O'Neil, registered dietitian and nutrition advisor for BestFoodFacts.org. "The Nutrition Facts panel lists all of the important specs, such as calories, fats, sodium, fiber, sugar and several key vitamins and minerals."

Nutrition label 101

Here are some of O'Neil's tips on understanding nutrition labels, so you can be a more informed consumer and make healthier decisions for your family.

  • Always note serving sizes: While a food or beverage may seem like a good nutritional fit, the first thing to notice should always be the serving size. Watch out because if you read that a serving contains 100 calories, for instance, that may be for 8 ounces of a juice beverage and the container may hold 16 ounces.
     
  • Be aware of unhealthy contents: If looking to limit fat, sodium and sugar, pay close attention to these call outs on the label. Some foods might deliver more than your daily limit for sodium! Remember that trans fat should be avoided completely.

  • Look for the good stuff: A healthy diet consists of vitamins and nutrients which nutrition labels also spell out. Go for foods that are good sources of the good guys - dietary fiber, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron and potassium.
     
  • Don't be fooled by healthy looks: While package design may illustrate people engaging in healthful activities, pretty farm scenes and adorned with "healthy" words, note that the FDA does not regulate the use of creative brand names. As always, it is the nutrition facts label where a consumer can see what's really inside.

  • Trust health claims: The FDA closely monitors the use of health claims on food packaging. So, if you see wording such as "heart healthy," you can be confident the company had to meet nutrition criteria set by the FDA.

Prepared with nutrition label know-how, shoppers can put this valuable information to work to make food shopping easier on the next trip to supermarket. For other tips visit www.BestFoodFacts.org.

(Mother reading label) Photo courtesy of Getty Images

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