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Healthy Choices Everywhere - Learn How to Choose - The Nutrition Label Revealed!

Picture of the Nutrition Facts Label

Grocery shopping is one of those things that always used to take me much longer than I liked. Even when I had a list of exactly what I needed, and knew where it was located in the store, inevitably, I ended up comparing different brands, measuring one product against the other until I found the one with the best nutritional profile.

Once I stood in the aisle and spent ten minutes reading every single peanut butter label to find out the one that was lowest in fat, sugar and sodium.

There had to be a better way. I figured I should be able to look at a nutrition label and decide in eight seconds or less if something was good for me or not. So, I designed what I call "food label shorthand" to figure things out in an instant. This is how you do it.

(At the end of this article is a quick reference card you can download to use at the supermarket. As you read each section, use the graphic below to see where it's located on an actual label.)

Start with the serving size and calories. Even when it looks like a single serving package, read how many servings are supposed to come out. I picked up a snack mix the other day that looked like enough for two people. But, the serving size on the label said it was for seven, and it had 120 calories per serving! With two of us eating half the small bag each, that would have been a gut bomb of 420 calories per person.

Soda and sports drinks are notorious for this trick. Many brands are sold in convenient 16 oz. plastic bottles that show the nutritional information for a single serving, but the container actually holds two. If the serving size is too small to be realistic, put it back on the shelf.

Next, move down to the part of the label that says "calories from fat." It's directly under the heading "calories." If the calories from fat number is higher than 30% of the calories, it's too high in fat, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

An easy way to get a rough idea is to divide the total calories by three, or if you're trying to keep your fat low, divide by four. The number you come up with should be HIGHER than the calories from fat.

Avoid anything that has Trans Fat in it. The only acceptable number here is zero. Because food companies can claim zero if there's less than five grams per serving, you also need to check the ingredient list when you're looking at crackers, cakes, cookies, muffins or other baked goods. Foods with the words or phrases "Partially Hydrogenated Oils, Shortening, Interesterified or Stearate-Rich" all contain unhealthy trans fats.

Sodium is the next candidate. Compare the milligrams of sodium to the calories. If both numbers are the same, or if the sodium is lower, the food has a reasonable to low amount of sodium in it. When the sodium number is more than 25% higher than the calories, it probably has too much salt to be healthy and you should consider skipping it unless it's a very small serving.

Check out the fiber now. Three grams or more per serving is a good start. If there's more fiber in a food, it slows down the digestion for a sustained release of energy. When choosing between two foods, if all else is equal, buy the one that has more fiber.

At this point, I've sorted out much of the junk food. I've also been able to quickly compare several options and pick the healthier one. There are only three more things to consider.

Sugar is tricky. There are no requirements to show how much sugar is acceptable in the average diet. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that someone eating 2,000 calories a day should keep it between 45g and 55g per day.

To make sure you're not taking in too much sugar, memorize this formula: Keep sugar to 1 gram per 40 calories. If you eat something with more sugar, you'll need to compensate later by taking in less during other meals.

That takes me to protein. If everything else is equal, choose the brand that's higher in protein. Don't worry about getting too much. That's pretty rare in the modern American diet.

Finally, check out the ingredients list. When looking at two different foods that are virtually identical nutritionally, pick the one with fewer ingredients. In commercial products, that usually means it has the least amount of artificial preservatives and flavorings.

With a little practice, you should be able to scan a label in under eight seconds and decide if it's something that might be good for you or something that would be better left on the supermarket shelf.

Click Here to print out a Quick Reference Card like the one shown below that's the size of a standard business card. Take it with you to the supermarket to help you remember these tips.

Quick Reference Card - The Nutrition Label Revealed!

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Updated 7/22/2007
Updated 3/4/2011