A Food Label Primer
Charles R. Attwood, M.D., F.A.A.P.

kidzh2.gif (1828 bytes)ealthy, low-fat, high-fiber foods are shelved adjacent to their high-fat, low-fiber counterparts, so you'll need to read labels carefully. You'll find them on all packaged foods as of May 1994, thanks to new federal regulations.

Revised federal food labels were mandated by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. These labels, a boon to shoppers, show exact total-fat and saturated-rat content of servings of all frozen, packaged, and canned foods. Serving sizes are standardized, and foods must meet standards if claims are made about cholesterol, fat, fiber, sugar, or calories. Also nutrients, including fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and D must be listed as percentages of daily needs, expressed as % Daily Value. Unfortunately, hydrogenated fat is counted as total instead of saturated fat.

Manufacturers are not permitted to use the term "low-cholesterol" on a label unless the food is also low (no more than 2 grams per serving) in saturated fat. The term "cholesterol-free" requires that a serving contain no more than 2 mg; "low-cholesterol," no more than 20 mg; "fat-free," less than 0.5 grams; "low-fat," less than 3 grams; "sodium-free," less than 5 mg; "low-sodium," less than 140 mg; "calorie-free," less than 5 calories; and "low-calorie," 40 calories or less.

The terms "light" and "lite" can be used only under two conditions: For foods deriving 50 percent or more of their calories from fat, the fat content must be reduced by 50 percent or more per serving. Foods deriving less than 50 percent of their calories from fat may he called "light" or "lite" when the fat is reduced by at least one-third per serving. These terms may also be used to denote a light-colored food, but the label must make that understood. The long-standing exception for the milk industry -- they were allowed to call 2% milk "low-fat" -- has ended. They must now use the term "reduced fat."

If a food contains more than 11.5 grams of total fat or 4 grams of saturated fat per serving, it may make no health claims at all. However, health claims may be made when fiber content per serving is at least 10 percent of the recommended daily needs; the term "high-fiber" may be used for foods containing 20 percent or more of the daily fiber needs.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, FDA Commissioner David Kessler said that the new labels were "one of the most important public-health landmarks this agency has ever engaged in. Before I took this job I had no idea whether six grams of fat per serving was high, medium, or low. Now we'll have a pretty good idea what that means."

The labels still do not list the percentage of calories from fat per serving. You can do this quickly, however, with a mental calculation using the following formula:

Percent of Grams of fat per serving x 9        
calories = _____________________ x 100
              from fat Total calories per serving

For example, one serving of Nabisco Grahams (2 crackers) contains 1 gram of fat. One serving also supplies a total of 60 calories. Since each gram of fat produces 9 calories, the "fat calories" (1 x 9 = 9) are divided by the total calories per serving (60: 9 divided by 60 = 0.15. Multiply this by 100 to convert to percent of calorics from fat.

Or, since the labels now show the number of calorics per serving from fat, you may just divide this number by the number of total calories per serving to get the percent of calories from fat.

To become a better label-reader, write for the free booklet How to read the New Food Label (distributed by the Consumer Information Center, Department 79, Pueblo, Colorado 81009) prepared by the AHA and the FDA.

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