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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.

Use Nutrition Labels to Help Set Your Priorities

Because it's easy to feel overwhelmed, determine which information is most important to you. If weight is a problem, total calories are a priority, for example. If not, you don't need to worry about them.

"If you have high blood pressure or a family history of hypertension, zero in on sodium levels," says Goldberg. Be especially alert to the information on nutrition panels when you're shopping for a new item. "That way you can compare a variety of brands and make the best choice for your own requirements," says Goldberg.

Will label reading really make you healthier? Studies show that people who pay attention to nutrition labels do tend to eat lower-fat diets and get more fiber and iron.