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How to read a food label

Don't be fooled by serving sizes, artificial colors and other food label tricks and terms. Senior Food Editor Elisa Bosley dishes on how to correctly read a nutrition label.

Food labels are confusing, but they don't have to be if you follow these four tips. You'll be making healthier food choices in no time.

  1. Start with serving size.
    If a 16-ounce bottled juice says “Serving Size: 8 ounces,” that means the bottle is two servings, not one. Double the nutrition numbers to see what you’re really getting if you drink the whole thing.
  2. Read the ingredient list.
    Items appear in order of quantity; for example, if “oats” is the first ingredient, that’s got the highest concentration in the food. This tells you something if sugar—or a disguised sugar, like corn syrup, dextrose, or sucrose—is the first (and third and fourth) ingredient.
  3. Look for recognizable, whole foods.
    Lengthy lists with lots of scientific-sounding ingredients mean most of that “food” was created in a lab (think preservatives, fake colors, and other additives), not in nature. And be aware: Anything with “hydrogenated” in the ingredient list contains trans fats, even if the label number reads zero, thanks to a loophole that allows products with less than 0.5 grams trans fat per serving to go unlabeled.
  4. Keep an eye on key nutrients.
    Packaged foods tend to be high in sodium; aim for less than 5 percent Daily Value (DV) per serving. A good fiber number is 4 grams or more per serving. Limit snacks to about 200 calories per serving; meals should run around 600–700 calories.
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