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Secrets From Inside Nutrition Facts Labels

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

Saturated Fat and Trans Fat: Key Fat Facts

Fat facts on food labels indicate total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat amounts. Total fat matters if you're trying to lose weight and want to follow a low-fat diet.

"But to prevent heart disease, the crucial items are saturated fat and trans fat," says Myrtle McCulloch, MS, clinical assistant professor of nutritionist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "These are the fats that increase cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease."

Products that contain half a gram or less of trans fats can still claim to be trans-fat-free. To know for sure, look further down on the label to the ingredients list. If the product contains partially hydrogenated oils, it contains at least some trans fats. Look for foods that are low in both saturated fats and trans fat. 

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.

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