Nutrition Article:

Improve your nutrition by learning to understand food labels

by Pam McGaffin

Most people know that a good diet means eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer curly fries and doughnuts. But the healthy choice isn't always so clear when buying packaged foods. Just what does "light" mean anyway?

The key is in the food label - those little boxes of numbers, nutrients and ingredients that tell you what's in the box.

The Healthy Aging Partnership, a coalition of more than 30 nonprofit and government agencies dedicated to the health and well being of older adults, encourages people to take the time to read food labels. A few minutes of reading can help you limit certain things like sodium and saturated fat and get more of the good stuff, like vitamin A and calcium.

Understanding food labels is particularly important if you're on a tight budget and want to get the most nutrition bang for your buck.

In fact, a primary goal of the Washington Basic Food Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program) is to ensure that low-income households have the means to eat right. In addition to providing funds to purchase food, the program also offers nutrition education to help recipients make healthy choices.

Here are some tips to help you better understand what you read on a food label:

  • Serving size: This is the first thing on the label and the basis for all the numbers and percentages that follow. If you don't check serving size, you could be eating more calories than you realize. For example, a single serving of bread is one slice not two, so a sandwich would contain double the calories, fat, carbohydrates, etc.
  • Calories: This tells you the number of calories in a serving. Also listed are the calories from fat. For example, a one-cup serving of macaroni and cheese may have 250 calories, of which 110 or about 44 percent are from fat. If you're looking to limit fats, you might choose products with 30 percent or less fat.
  • Percentage Daily Value (%DV): This shows how the amount of nutrients in a serving fits into an average 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. You can use this as a general guide to the nutrient value of a food.
  • Nutrient list: Here are the nutrients you want to eat less of (saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar) as well as those you want to get enough of (vitamins, minerals and fiber). A food that provides 5 percent or less of daily value is considered to be low in that nutrient, while a food is considered a good source of a nutrient if one serving provides 20 percent DV.
  • Ingredients: This box lists what's in the food, including any added nutrients, fats or sugars. Ingredients are listed in order by weight, from the most to the least. So if you want to cut back on sugar, don't choose a cereal with sugar as the first ingredient. And don't be fooled by different forms of fat and sugar listed under different names. If you want to know how much sugar is really in a product, look for words that end in "ose" -sucrose, dextrose, fructose - as well as more common synonyms: corn syrup, molasses and honey. Words for fat include hydrogenated vegetable shortening, butter, margarine, oil (coconut, safflower, palm, etc.), and lard.
  • Descriptions: What do "light", "fat-free" and "low-sodium" really mean? Here's how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines them: low-saturated fat (one gram or less per serving); low-sodium (140 milligrams or less); low-cholesterol (20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat); low-calorie (40 calories or less). Light foods have two-thirds the calories of the regular variety. Note: Just because a product is low-fat or low-sugar doesn't necessarily mean it's low in calories.

Reading labels will help you detect those "empty calories," or foods with little nutritional value, and get your money's worth. If you need help with your food budget, consider applying for the state Basic Food Program. Depending on your income, you may qualify for up to $115 a month.

For more information on food stamps and other issues related to life as an older adult, call 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464), a free and confidential help line. Or visit the HAP Web site at