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Secrets From Inside Nutrition Facts Labels

How to use nutrition facts on packaged food for your diet and health.

Daily Values: What Does It Mean?

Along with listing the amount of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and fiber in grams, the label includes "% Daily Value." This item tells you what percentage of the recommended daily nutrient is in a serving.

The daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie a day diet. Men and very active women may need to consume more calories to meet their energy needs. Check the bottom of the nutrition facts box, which includes the recommended amounts in grams for a 2,000-calorie-a-day and a 2,500-calorie-a-day diet.

"But don't get hung up on the math," says McCulloch. "If an item has only 5% or less of the daily value, consider it low in that ingredient. If it has 20% or more, consider it high. A product with 20% or more of the daily value of fiber, for example, represents an excellent source of fiber," according to the USDA.

Fiber: Look for Facts on This Nutrient

Nutritionists say we should consume between 25 and 38 grams of fiber a day. "Most people get barely half that amount," says University of Pennsylvania nutritionist Lisa Hark, PhD, RD, author of Nutrition for Life.

When shopping for breads, grains or breakfast cereals, she suggests choosing brands with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving or more. Fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts also contribute fiber to your diet.

Sodium: Beware of Too Much Salt

The nutrient label singles out facts on sodium, or salt, for good reason. Too much can increase the risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) -- one of the leading causes of heart disease. Studies show that the lower an individual's salt intake, the lower the risk of developing hypertension. Consuming enough potassium also helps keep blood pressure down. 

Look for packaged foods that contain 5% or less of the daily value of sodium. When choosing canned foods, rinsing the liquid off the food can help lower the sodium content.

Sugars: Watch for Empty Calories

Many packaged foods include sugars in a variety of forms, which can add up to a lot of calories and not much nutrition.

"This item on the label is useful because it combines all the different forms of sugar that may appear in food, from refined sugar to honey and fructose," says McCulloch. Remember: 4 to 5 grams of sugar is the equivalent of a level teaspoon of sugar. 

Vitamins and Minerals: Useful Facts to Track

The label facts list vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. If you eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products -- or if you take a multivitamin -- you probably don't need to worry about these numbers. If you're trying to get more calcium, look for foods with at least 20% of daily value.

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