OakLeaf Medical Network Healthy Viewpoints, Winter 2003
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Kari Knoltner, MS, RD, LD


Reading the Labels for Lifelong Health

By Kari Knoltner, MS, RD, LD

Grocery shopping can be confusing, time-consuming, and overwhelming. That’s no surprise when we realize that over 30,000 items confront us each time we enter the supermarket. This can lead to confusion about food choices. Since the mid 1970s, nutrition labeling has been required on package labels. We can use the information provided on these food labels to help us make healthy, nutritious, tasty, and safe food decisions.

How do we know what to look for? Food labels identify the food, the amount inside the package, and the manufacturer. Nutrition information in the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients list appear on almost every packaged food or can be found on a poster or pamphlet nearby for fresh produce, meat, poultry and seafood.

The panel called Nutrition Facts defines specific amounts of nutrients and calories in the food for a single serving. A serving is the amount of the food that a person usually eats. This is NOT always the recommended amount or the amount that YOU normally eat. You need to look at this amount because it is the measurement that has been used in the calculation of the calories and nutrients. For example, if you eat twice the amount of the serving size that is listed, you will consume two times the number of calories and nutrients listed on the panel.

Below the calorie heading, you will find calories from fat followed by a separate listing for the amount of total fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, total carbohydrate and protein. These nutrients have been linked to today’s most important health issues. The total fat is sometimes broken down into saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated to assist the consumer who is aware of the impact of saturated fat and cholesterol in the risk of heart disease. The total carbohydrate heading may have separate listings for dietary fiber, sugars and other carbohydrates categories.

The % Daily Value column tells you how much one serving of this food contributes to an intake of 2,000 calories per day. You, specifically, may need more or less than 2,000 calories a day based upon your gender, age and activity level. Once you know how many calories your body needs on a daily basis you will know how the serving size listed can meet your needs. For example, if you need approximately 1,800 calories per day, you will reach 100% of your daily needs for nutrients with a smaller serving.

Nutrition descriptions are optional and are defined by strict regulation. If a food label states that it is a "high" source of vitamin C, a single serving provides 20 percent or more of the daily value for that nutrient. Likewise, if a meat is labeled as “lean” it must have less than 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams or less saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol per 3 ounce serving. A nutrition description will help you spot foods that have the nutritional qualities that match your needs.

Some labels have Health claims that may grab your attention. These claims are strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and are supported by strong scientific evidence to give you information about how this food may lower your risk for a chronic disease.

Remember, food labels tell the basics. Packaging is labeled with four different types of health and nutrition information to help you choose foods to meet your needs and fit into your individualized eating style. Learn to read the label and make smart choices.

For more information, call OakLeaf Surgical Hospital 715.831.8130


  • You probably know that most people don’t eat cereal dry. Because we usually add milk or even yogurt to cereal, it becomes a great “transport” for calcium and the other nutrients found in milk. Because of this, the Nutrition Facts for the cereal with added milk are often given on the cereal label.
  • Try to finish your entire bowl of cereal – even the last drop of milk. Many of the vitamins and minerals that are “in” the cereal have been sprayed onto the dry cereal and may have dissolved into the milk that you have added.