Read any good labels lately? You will if you want to know what's good for you.
Most food products these days contain the precise information you need to make better food selection decisions.
"Each line of the Nutrition Facts panel can be very helpful, depending on what the consumer's specific nutrition needs are," said Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
But the information is helpful only if it's noticed.
"The most important thing to remember is to take the time to read the label," said Mary Poos, deputy director of the FDA Office of Nutrition Labeling and Dietary Supplements. "Many consumers spend very little time looking at the label, and some consumers only look at a label the first time they purchase a new product."
It's best, however, to always look at the label.
Try thinking of the Nutrition Facts label as a road map. It won't tell you where to go, but it can show you the best way to get there. Just as with a map, though, you need to know how to interpret it.
Each line of the Nutrition Facts panel can be very helpful, depending on what the consumer's specific nutrition needs are.
Heather Mangieri, registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association
Start at the Very Beginning
At the top of the label is the serving size. It tells the consumer how much of that product is considered a normal serving, such as three-quarters of a cup for a certain cereal or one-quarter cup for another. It also includes how many calories are in each serving -- not each package or bottle.
"One mistake consumers often make is not paying attention to serving size. Calorie and nutrition information is based on a single serving, but the consumer may eat more than one serving at a time," Poos said. "If you double the servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients, including the percentage of daily values."
The label also lists specific nutrients, such as fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, vitamins and calcium. Just as important, to the right of the listed nutrients is the percent of daily value. This shows what percentage of the recommended daily intake of each nutrient is contained in each serving. The FDA's rule of thumb is that if a nutrient is 5 percent of the daily value, it is considered low. If it is 20 percent or more, it is considered high.
The label, at the bottom, often contains a "footnote" that shows the percentages of certain nutrients that a person on a 2,000-calorie and a 2,500-calorie per day diet should consume.
The trick, says Mangieri, is knowing which nutrients are important, especially to you, and how the nutrients work together.
"It's very important to look at the entire food," Mangieri said. "Yogurt is a perfect example. It's high in calories but also contains five essential nutrients, is low in fat and is easily accepted by children."
So unless they have specific concerns that require them to limit certain nutrients such as sugars or sodium, consumers should always consider the total product.
"We are a society too focused on what we shouldn't have; we need to focus on what we should have," Mangieri said.
Food Labels and Health
There's no overestimating the importance of food and nutrition in any fitness program, says Trent David, a personal trainer at Gold's Gym in Hollywood, California. He says that a person cannot diet, especially if the goal is to lose weight, without exercise. And at the same time, you can't have a good exercise program without a good diet.
David's approach to food labels is "keep it simple."
"For people trying to lose weight, calorie counting is very important," David said. "If you have a calorie surplus at the end of the day, you're not going to lose weight."
Dallas-based fitness and nutrition expert Larry North also stresses the importance of a good diet, and notes that when it comes to food labels, it's necessary to know how to interpret what you read.
"Look at a can of regular soda that says it has 40 grams of sugar. Lots of people have no idea how much that is. But if you tell them that's 10 teaspoons of sugar … then people would know what they are getting, and lots of people would stay away from that," North said.
Poos, with the FDA's Office of Nutrition Labeling, says one important role of the Nutrition Facts label is that it helps consumers compare similar products.
"If you use the label when you shop, as you plan your meals and as you cook each day, it can help you make healthier choices in your diet," she said.
Finding the Right Ingredients
While the Nutrition Facts label may be the most visible, it's far from the only information you will find on food products.
Food products also include an ingredients list, and that can provide lots of valuable information. The list includes everything that is in the product, with the most prevalent ingredients first and the least prevalent last.
So if a cereal lists sugar as the first ingredient, a consumer may want to take that into consideration.
"The ingredients list is another good tool to help consumers make better choices," said Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "It can tell you, for example, if the fiber in the product is coming from whole grains."
But other important information may also be included on the front of the label. Specifically, words like "healthy" or "all natural" or "organic," although Mangieri recommends that consumers remain skeptical.
"Many people fall victim to the words 'all natural' or 'made with natural ingredients,'" Mangieri said. "Natural doesn't necessarily mean a product is better than another."