Inside a nutrition label

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Food companies love to slap phrases like 'a good source of fiber," "smart choice," "low in sodium" and the like on the front of their packaging. But the no-frills information about what is actually in the food you eat is hiding in the back, on the nutrition label.

Serving size

The information on the nutrition label is useless unless you know how many servings are in the whole package.  For example: Many sports drinks will post calories counts of an 8-ounce serving size on a 20-ounce bottle, which means each bottle has 2.5 servings in it, tripling the number of calories per bottle that is actually shown on the label. The good news is, the nutrition labels are required to tell you how many servings are in one package.

Pay attention to percentage

At the right side of each line on a nutrition label is the 'percent daily value' of that item.  These indicate how much of a specific element you will consume in that product based on a 2,000 calorie diet and government recommendations of how much the average person should consume each day.

Look for numbers less than five percent next to fat, saturated fat, and sodium; and numbers more than 20 percent next to nutrients such as protein, calcium and fiber.

Check out calories

If your goal is weight loss, you must burn more calories than you consume on a daily basis.  Keep track of the number of calories you ingest in a day.  It is also a good idea to keep track of the amount of physical activity you do each day so you have a good idea of how many calories you need to stay healthy. And remember to check the servings sizes so you do not unwittingly double or triple your calorie intake.

Fat and all his friends

The next lines in the nutrition label should show total fat, saturated fat, transfats, cholesterol and sodium.  While it is never good to have too much of any of these items, pay special attention to saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium and keep those levels below 10 percent daily value. If a package has partially hydrogenated oil listed it does contain trans fats, it just happens to contain less than half a gram per serving.

To eat carbs or not to eat carbs

The USDA recommends consuming between three and eight ounces of grains per day depending on age and gender.   However, the USDA also recommends that at least half of those grains be whole grains.  Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel - the bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains, the kind found in white bread and flour, have been processed - or milled - to remove the bran and the germ from the grain.

What's in it: deciphering the ingredients

Finally, there is the question of what is actually IN the food you eat.  This information is found at the bottom of the nutrition facts label. Although this may be hard, try to eat foods containing ingredients that you recognize and can pronounce.  Items such as high fructose corn syrup, thiamine mononitrate, dough conditioners and partially hydrogenated oils are best avoided.