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Nutrition Label Shorthand
(How to read a nutrition label in 8 seconds or less.)

Read Nutrition Label
Are you reading every label?

Grocery shopping is one of those things that always used to take me much longer than I liked. Comparing different brands, measuring one product against the other until I found the one with the best nutritional profile.

I stood in the aisle and actually spent 10 minutes reading every single peanut butter label to find out the one lowest in fat, sugar and sodium.

That's when I decided there had to be a better way. You should be able to look at a nutrition label and decide in 8 seconds or less if something is good for you or not.

So I designed what I call "nutrition label shorthand" to figure things out in an instant. This is how it works.

Start with the serving size and calories. When it looks like a single serving package, I read how many servings are supposed to come out. I picked up a snack mix the other day that looked like enough for 2 people. But the serving size on the label said it was for seven! At 120 calories per serving, with two of us eating half the small bag apiece, 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, I 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 take the total calories and divide by 3. Unless it's a desert, that number you come up with should be HIGHER than the calories from fat.

Sodium is the next victim. 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 next. 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 going over that number, memorize this. Try and keep sugar to around 1 gram per 40 calories. If you eat something with more than that, 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 you're 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. Here's a sample label for you to check out.

Read a nutrition label FAST.

With a little practice, you should be able to scan a label in under 8 seconds and decide if it's something that might be good for you, or something that would be better left on the supermarket shelf.

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10/28/2007