Ah, the almighty nutrition label. It’s relatively small, often hidden, and notoriously hard to read. But this modest rectangle is present on virtually all packaged foods and holds all the information you need regarding the nutrition content of the foods you feed to your family. The label can help you tell which foods are good sources of fiber, calcium, vitamins, and minerals, compare similar foods for which one has less calories and fat, keep your sodium consumption in check, and look for foods low in saturated and trans fats. Looking at the label can be overwhelming enough to make you want to skip the cracker aisle altogether, but luckily the American Dietetic Association has put together a guide to help us turn that ever-present nutrition label from a dizzying labarynth to an easy-to-read roadmap.

Start with the serving size. Look here for both the serving size, or amount per serving, and the total number of servings in the package. Remember to check your portion size with the serving size listed on the label. If the serving size is one cup, and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the calories, fat, and other nutrients listed on the label.

Check out the total calories and fat. Find out how many calories, fat grams, and calories from fat are in a single serving of the food. It’s smart to cut back on calories and fat if you are watching your weight.

Let the percent daily values be your guide. Daily values are average levels of nutrients for a person eating 2,000 calories per day. A food item with a 5% DV for fat means that a single serving of that food contains 5% of the total fat consumed by a person eating 2,000 calories per day. Remember, percent DV are based on an entire day, not just one meal or snack. Some people may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day or more or less than 100% DV. 5% or less is considered low – try to aim low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. 20% or more is considered high – aim high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Limit fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Eating less of these nutrients may help reduce your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer.

Get enough vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Eat more fiber, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron to maintain good health and help reduce your risk of certain conditions such as osteoporosis and anemia. A diet loaded with vegetables and fruit is an excellent way to ensure that your needs for these nutrients are being met.

Check the ingredient list. Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so those present in the greatest amounts are listed first. Be mindful of foods containing potential allergens such as milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.

Decipher any health claims. The FDA has strict guidelines on how certain terms can be used. Be sure not to take a brand’s marketing phrases at face value. When in doubt, check the label!

For more tidbits on decoding the nutrition label or more information on constructing a healthy eating plan, visit the ADA at www.eatright.org or click “Contact” on our homepage and let us know how we can help!