Get Savvy About Food: Use Nutrition Labels And This Cheat Sheet

Food labels provide critical nutritional information, but to make good choices, you also need to know how to read them.

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Before the year is out, nutrition labels on nearly all the food you encounter, whether in a grocery store, a bowling alley, vending machine, pizza parlor or movie theater, will have far more explicit information for consumers. The makeover, called for by the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, is the product of nearly four years of haggling among politicians, health experts and food industry leaders. The new rules mandate, among other changes, prominent display of calories, disclosure of added sugar, and more realistic definition of the quantity considered a portion, in part to help address an epidemic of obesity in the United States. The FDA says:

About half of consumers’ annual food dollars are spent on, and a third of total calories come from, foods prepared outside the home, including foods from restaurants and similar retail food establishments. Many people do not know, or underestimate, the calorie and nutrient content of these foods. To help make nutrition information for these foods available to consumers in a direct, accessible and consistent manner to enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.

In other words, they hope better information will lead to better informed and healthier consumers.

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The new Nutrition Facts should make it easier to decipher what is in processed food. Even with the label as it is now, however, you can get started making better choices in both the quality and quantity of food you buy by following these tips:

Focus on Fiber

  • Quality: There are two types of fiber (soluble and insoluble), but don’t worry about that. Plant-based fiber sources generally contain both types, so instead worry about eating a variety of fiber-filled foods such as whole grains and whole foods (produce, beans, nuts and seeds).
  • Quantity: The nonprofit Institute of Medicine recommends 21 to 26 total grams a day for women and 30 to 38 for men.
  • Bottom line: Fill up on fiber by filling your shopping cart with whole grains and whole foods.

Fats — good, bad and ugly

  • Quality: Understanding fats can be overwhelming, but my father, a cardiologist, taught me there are three basic types: good, bad and ugly. Plant-based and fish-based fat sources are good and should be where you get most of your fat. Animal-based fats are bad and should be limited. Man-made trans fats (aka partially hydrogenated oils) are ugly and should be avoided completely.
  • Quantity: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend getting 20 to 35 percent of your calories from fat. That means that on average, the number of calories from fat on a food label divided by the number of calories should equal 0.2 to 0.35. That only applies to good and bad fats, however. To avoid ugly fats, check out Trans Fats: When Cheap Means Costly.
  • Bottom line: Go for the good, limit the bad, and utterly avoid the ugly.

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    Also healthful: Drink plenty of water. Adequate water intake helps flush excess sodium from the body. Same for dietary potassium. Most fruit and their juices are good sources of potassium (Whole fruit also provides fiber). If you drink alcoholic beverages, go easy with them. Booze contributes to dehydration.

    If you do not like tap water, consider a water filtration pitcher such as Pur or Brita. Other home filtration systems are also available. Note that the annual cost of replacement pitcher filters will exceed that of the initial pitcher purchase, but in the long run, use of filtration pitchers will cost about 75% to 80% less than bottled water. The pitchers may be kept at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

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