Reading Labels

Proper nutrition doesn't occur accidentally. Careful reading of food labels is the best way of finding out whether packaged foods will decrease or increase your risk of heart attack. In 1994 a new labeling law became effective. This new label has the words Nutrition Facts at the top. (Click here for a sample label) While the new law has some weaknesses, it is more informative than the prior one. Understanding how to read food labels is an important step in getting the right balance of foods.

As fat becomes more commonly recognized as the source of health problems, many producers are making claims that their products are low fat or fat free. Often this is untrue. The labeling laws make this deception possible by using a small serving size and allowing grams of fat to be rounded off, so .49 grams of fat can be called zero. They realize that most consumers don't read or understand the labels. One margarine substitute has the words FAT-FREE in large letters on the package, but reading the nutrition facts revveals that each serving has 5 calories, with 5 calories from fat. That means the product is just about 100% fat. Claims of being 97% fat free are also misleading, since this is usually based on the weight of the product, not the calories from fat.

Don't worry about counting calories, you can eat all you want of foods which are low in fat (but not all sugar). The percent of calories from fat is the number you need to know. It can be calculated by dividing the calories from fat by the total calories. In the following example, the calories from fat is 15 and the total calories is 110.

15 ÷ 110 = 0.136 (13.6%).

A simple rule of thumb to determine what percent of calories from fat any food has is to see how many grams of fat there are per 100 calories. If you are trying to reverse heart disease, 10% calories from fat is your recommended target. Anything more than ONE gram of fat per 100 calories is higher than you want. If you're trying to prevent heart disease and you don't have multiple risk factors, 20% calories from fat is the recommended target. Anything more than TWO grams of fat per 100 calories exceeds this target.

In the labeling law, words sometimes don't mean what they usually do. Under pressure from food manufacturers who want to be able to make healthful claims, the FDA has approved some artificial definitions for terms. Click here to see these terms and what they mean to you.
Claims of Low Fat and Lite are often advertisers' fantasies, rather than fact. Click here for what Low Fat and Lite can really mean These terms are not typically valid for persons attempting to lower their heart disease risk factor. Always read the Nutritional Facts portion of the label and the list of ingredients before buying or consuming any product.

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©1994, 1996, 2002
Dr. Neal Pinckney
Healing Heart Foundation