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Healthy Bites

3 Things to Know About Your Food's Nutrition Label

(Image: © Food labels via Shutterstock)

There are few questions I am asked more often than how to make healthier choices in the supermarket. Why? Well, the subject can be downright confusing.

Food manufacturers label foods in a way that makes foods more appealing, so you buy them — that's their job. But your job is to make healthy choices for yourself and your family.

The good news is that research shows if you're looking at what's on nutrition labels, you're probably already eating healthier than those who don't. For example, a 2012 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that college students who checked food labels were more likely to consume less fast food and added sugar, and more fiber, than those who were not in the habit of checking labels.

But such studies doesn't help with label confusion. It's easy to quickly scan a food label and miss important facts that could sabotage an otherwise healthy diet. [10 New Ways to Eat Well]

Here are three tips for interpreting nutrition labels:

1. There's no such thing as a standard serving size. How much do you eat in a serving? It could be double what the food manufacturers are touting as one serving size. If that's the case, double the calories, sodium and fat to determine whether this food is really a healthy choice.

Serving sizes can also vary from brand to brand, so if you're comparing two packages, it's important to check. One manufacturer may count six ounces as a serving, while the other only counts four.

2. "Percent Daily Value" is based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet.  This means that the percentages serve as a good benchmark, but if you know that you typically consume fewer than 2,000 calories daily, take a closer look at the label. For example, a food with a sodium content of 25 percent of your daily intake of sodium based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet would contain well over the recommended intake of sodium for a 1,500-calorie daily diet.

3. Recommendations aren't necessarily goals. Those percentages you see on the nutrition facts label mean different things for different nutrients. For example, the FDA recommends that you get less than the designated percentage of fat, cholesterol and sodium (think of these percentages as limits), but at least the designated percentage of carbohydrates and fiber noted on the food label (think of these as minimums).

Healthy Bites appears weekly on LiveScience. Deborah Herlax Enos is a certified nutritionist and a health coach and weight loss expert in the Seattle area with more than 20 years of experience. Read more tips on her blog, Health in a Hurry!