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Packaging puzzled? Learn to decipher food labels

Don't know saturated fat from trans fat? TODAY nutritionist Joy Bauer explains the important information found on food packaging and how it can help you make smarter, healthier choices.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Are you lost when it comes to understanding the nutritional values on packaged foods? From special ingredients to sodium servings, TODAY nutritionist Joy Bauer identifies the important parts of labels and how they can help you make smarter, healthier choices:

Serving size/servings per containerLook here first. All the other information on the label is based on a single serving, so you need to know the size of a single serving, and how many servings are contained in the package. You may be surprised. Some packages look small, but they could contain two or more servings.

Calories If you are watching your weight (as most of us are), calories are key. This number is the total number of calories in a single serving. If you eat two servings, multiply the number of calories by two — if you eat three servings, multiply the number of calories by three, and so on.

Calories from fat
This tells you the number of calories in a single serving that come from fat (1 gram of fat = 9 calories, so "calories from fat" is derived by taking the "total fat" in grams and multiplying by 9). Some foods — such as margarines and oils — are all fat, so this number will be the same as the total number of calories. Other foods, like breakfast cereals and bread, are mainly carbohydrate and have very little fat, so this number will be low.

Total fat
This section specifies the amount of total fat in one serving. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, you should aim for no more than 65 grams total fat per day (that’s no more than 30 percent of total calories coming from fat). Fats are displayed in grams. To convert to calories from fat, multiply by 9.

Underneath "total fat," you’ll find the amounts of the two most dangerous types of fats — saturated fats and trans fats.

Saturated fat
It’s more important to know how much saturated fat is in a product than total fat. That’s because too much saturated fat has been shown to increase the risk for heart disease. The fewer grams of saturated fat on a label, the better!

For a product to be considered “low saturated fat,” it must have 1 gram or less. But most products have much more. Thus, as a general rule of thumb, select prepared entrée meals that are 4 grams saturated fat or less — and side dishes and snacks that are 2 grams saturated fat or less.

You’ll want to be extra careful to keep your collective saturated fat below 7 percent of your total calories (based on a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s no more than 15 grams of saturated fat for the day).

Percent daily value — for fat
You’ll notice there is a second number for total fat and saturated fat — "percent daily value." This shows what percent of your total daily calories (based on a 2,000-calorie diet) is contained in one serving. The daily value fat percent reflects the following recommendations: no more than 30 percent of your total calories should come from "total fat" — that’s no more than 65 grams — and no more than 10 percent (20 grams) should come from saturated fat. But I say aim for a lower overall intake from saturated fat (no more than 7 percent of total calories). And remember, these are cumulative, so keep track of and add all your fat percentages throughout the day.

Trans fat There is no safe amount of trans fats, so aim to get as few grams per day as possible. Trans fat has been shown to increase bad cholesterol and lower the good cholesterol (double whammy).

Only animal products contain cholesterol, so don’t get too excited if your breakfast cereal or favorite peanut butter doesn’t have any. The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 300 milligrams per day. To keep track of your daily totals, you can add the milligrams of cholesterol for all foods you eat, or add the numbers specified by percent daily value, being careful not to eat more than 100 percent during the day.

This tells you the amount of salt in a single serving. Aim to get a daily total of 2,300 milligrams or less per day. To keep track of your daily total, you can add the milligrams sodium for all foods you eat. If you are salt-sensitive or have high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend that you restrict your sodium intake even more.

For a product to be officially considered "low sodium," it must provide no more than 140 milligrams per serving. But some snack foods and most prepared meals have much more. As a general rule of thumb, healthy main meals should provide no more than 600 milligrams sodium and packaged side dishes no more than 400 milligrams.

If you’re diabetic, you’ll need to be aware of the total carbohydrate in every product you eat. However, people with normal functioning blood sugar levels can strictly focus on limiting refined sugar and increasing dietary fiber — two subcategories listed underneath total carbohydrate.

Sugars are low-quality carbohydrates and should be limited (unless they’re naturally occurring in fruit and dairy). The USDA recommends limiting “added sugars” — from packaged foods and sugar/honey/jelly packets — to no more than 40 grams per day (that’s 10 teaspoons, since there are 4 grams per teaspoon). That’s 8 percent of your total calories, if you’re following a 2,000-calorie diet.

Dietary fiber Experts recommend that you get 25 to 35 grams of total fiber daily. Products are considered a good source of fiber when they provide 2.5-4.9 grams per serving. Products that provide 5+ grams of fiber are officially considered high-fiber foods. The label will sometimes specify the amounts of soluble fiber and insoluble fiber, which may be of interest to people fighting diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

The "percent daily value" for total carbohydrate and dietary fiber help you to gauge how much a serving will contribute to your personal goals. The standard is based on a 2,000-calorie diet that strives for 60 percent of calories from total carbohydrates, and 25 grams of total dietary fiber.

Take your weight in pounds and divide it in half. That’s approximately how many grams of protein you should eat per day. This listing will help you figure out how much protein is contained in packaged goods.

Vitamins and minerals
Below the thick dividing line under "protein" is the space for listing significant vitamins and minerals and the percent of the recommended daily value contained in one serving. This can be helpful if you are looking to boost your intake of particular nutrients (for example, calcium, vitamin C, etc.).

Calorie guide
Some larger food labels also contain an informational section that lists the calories per gram for fat (9 calories per gram), carbohydrate (4 calories per gram), protein (4 calories per gram) and alcohol (7 calories per gram). This is just informational; it does not describe anything about the food.

Somewhere outside the Nutrition Facts box is a list of ingredients, in descending order of predominance according to weight. That means that the first food listed is the most abundant (by weight).

Special notations
Look for special notations that might tell you more about the product, such as “enriched” or “fortified” (which tells you that extra vitamins or minerals have been added, or replaced after processing), or “contains wheat ingredients” (which tells you it isn’t safe for people with celiac disease or wheat sensitivities), or “may contain peanuts” (as a warning to people with peanut allergies).

Contact information
All labels must include a way for you to contact the company, such as the company name, address, telephone number and/or Web site address. Don’t hesitate to contact a company if you have questions about its products.

For more information on healthy eating, visit Joy Bauer's Web site at