Deciphering the Nutrition Facts Label: Do You Know What You're Eating?

Food nutrition label How much calcium is in macaroni and cheese? Which brand of macaroni and cheese has the least fat? The best way to find out this information and more is to read the food label. All food packages bear the Nutrition Facts label, which is full of useful information to help you eat more healthfully. Let's look at a sample label for macaroni and cheese to find out what is inside. Keep in mind the differences between packaged and prepared values. Prepared values include milk and butter (or margarine) that is needed for cooking this particular food. Prepared values are based on specific measurements provided in the instructions.

Serving Size

Serving Size: 2/3 cup
Servings Per Container: almost 3
The serving size tells you the amount of food that the nutrient information given on the label is based on. Pay attention to the serving size, including how many servings are in a package, and compare it to how much you actually eat. In the sample label above, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals 2/3 cup. If you ate the entire package, you would consume nearly 3 times the amount of the nutrients listed on the label.

Calories and Calories From Fat

Amount Per Serving
Calories 260         Calories from Fat 25
Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from food. Calories come from three sources: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. The label tells you how many of the calories in one serving come from fat.

Important Nutrients

The top half of the nutrition label lists nutrients that can strongly affect your health. They can be divided into two groups: those to limit and those to get enough of.

Nutrients to Limit

Total Fat 3 g 5%
    Saturated Fat 1.5 g 8%
Trans Fat 0 g
Cholesterol 10 mg 3%
Sodium 570 mg 24%
These are the nutrients that can have adverse effects on your health if they are eaten in excess. For example, too much fat, too much cholesterol, or too much sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases including heart disease, some forms of cancer, and high blood pressure. Saturated fat and trans fat is of particular concern. Unsaturated fats, which are not required to be listed on a label, are a healthier type of fat. Most of the fat you eat should be the unsaturated type (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). Another kind of fat on the label is trans fats. Most trans fats come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils as found in shortening and some margarines, which are commonly used in baked goods. Trans fats, along with saturated fats and cholesterol increase the "bad" lipids in your blood, putting you at higher risk for heart disease. Eating too many calories in general can lead to overweight and obesity. Being overweight is a risk factor for many health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis. Therefore, it is essential to also note the total calories listed on the label.

Nutrients to Get Enough of

Dietary Fiber 1 g 4%
Vitamin A 0%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 10%
Iron 10%
These are a few of the nutrients that are beneficial to our health, and many Americans may not get enough. These include vitamins A and C, the minerals calcium and iron, and fiber. Calcium can help decrease the risk of osteoporosis, while vitamin C acts as an antioxidant. Fiber, which helps to maintain regularity, is also believed to help decrease the risk of certain chronic diseases.

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