Understanding the Nutrition Facts Labels

Once upon a time, the only reliable consumer information on a food label was the name of the food inside. The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act changed that forever with a spiffy new set of consumer-friendly food labels that include

1 A mini-nutrition guide that shows the food's nutrient content and evaluates its place in a balanced diet

1 Accurate ingredient listings, with all ingredients listed in order of their weight in the food; for example, the most prominent ingredient in a loaf of bread would be flour

1 Clear identification of ingredients previously listed simply as colorings and sweeteners

1 Scientifically reliable information about the relationship between specific foods and specific chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer

The Nutrition Facts label is required by law for more than 90 percent of all processed, packaged foods, everything from canned soup to fresh pasteurized orange juice. Food sold in really small packages — a pack of gum, for example — can omit the nutrition label but must carry a telephone number or address so that an inquisitive consumer (you) can call or write for the information.

Just about the only processed foods exempted from the nutrition labeling regulations are those with no appreciable amounts of nutrients or those whose content varies from batch to batch:

1 Plain (unflavored) coffee and tea

1 Some spices and flavorings

1 Deli and bakery items prepared fresh in the store where they're sold directly to the consumer, as well as food produced by small companies

1 Food sold in restaurants, unless it makes a nutrition content or health claim (How do you eat well when eating out? Check out Chapter 18.)

Labels are voluntary for fresh raw meat, fish, or poultry and fresh fruits and vegetables, but many markets — perhaps under pressure from customers (Hint! Hint!) — put posters or brochures with generic nutrition information near the meat counter or produce bins.

Your Heart and Nutrition

Your Heart and Nutrition

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