The nutrition facts label tells you what's in your favorite foods. Here's how to decode information about fats, carbs, protein and sugars.
If you lose your train of thought somewhere between "servings per container" and "total carbohydrate," Sarah Krieger, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, is here to help understand some of the key ingredients.
>Serving size and daily values
Serving size: If your iced tea says 100 calories per serving and one serving per container, you're downing 100 calories per bottle. If your iced tea says 100 calories per serving and 2.5 servings per container, that's 250 calories per bottle.
Daily values: The FDA uses daily value to tell you how much of each element you should consume each day relative to your overall caloric intake. The label is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. (Larger packaging has recommended maximums based on two diets.)
>Calories from fat
Some foods -- peanut butter, salad dressing -- should be nearly all fat. But if you see that your 300-calorie frozen dinner gets 200 of its calories from fat, that's a red flag. Check the list of ingredients to determine what kinds of fat are in the food. Hydrogenated and partly hydrogenated fats should be avoided. Vegetable oils are a better choice.
Trans fat: No daily value established by FDA, but trans fat is linked to raising bad cholesterol levels. Avoid.
A lot of people look at carbohydrates, a category that can be confusing because it includes both natural and added sugars. Krieger prefers to check out fiber. For adults the daily goal is 25 to 35 grams, so if you get 3 grams per serving from bread that's pretty good.
Kids need less fiber; the guideline is "age plus 5," so if your child is 3, she needs a minimum of 8 grams of fiber a day.
Guidelines for sodium are in flux, with the American Heart Association now saying that less than 1,500 milligrams a day is the goal. That's a very small amount of salt by American standards -- less than a teaspoon. So look at the milligrams of sodium on the label and ask yourself, is it going to make me exceed my daily goal?
Don't stress out over vitamins A and C; most Americans get enough. Iron, similarly, is not as critical as it once was, due to factors such as the fortification of cereal. Calcium is the only vitamin/mineral Krieger is really concerned about, especially in the case of, say, a yogurt with a lot of added sugar.
No daily reference value has been established for sugars because no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day.