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You are what you eat, but do you know what that is? Thanks to nutrition facts labels on most packaged food products, consumers have access to a wealth of information to help them decide which foods they should put in their mouths and which they should pass over. But understanding these labels sometimes requires some mathematic skill. If you break them down into their most important aspects and stick to real numbers, you can unlock the code.
First, we need to address serving size, since every number on the label is based on it. Serving size usually is described in common measures like 1 cup, 1/2 cup, etc. Currently, there are no standards governing what serving size is used. It's up to the product's manufacturer. Not surprisingly, manufacturers tend to choose serving sizes that make the rest of the information on the label look better. Foods high in undesirable content, such as fat and calories, may be given unrealistically small serving sizes (e.g., 1-2 cookies, 12-15 chips), and foods low in these may be given impractically high serving sizes to accentuate the healthy nutrients they contain.
Every other number on the nutrition facts label is based on this serving size, so understanding what you are eating requires knowing how much you realistically will eat in a single sitting. You could measure every portion of food you take to determine what your actual consumption is, or you could use a shortcut. Next to the serving size on the nutrition facts label is the number of servings per container. This is the total volume of the package divided by the manufacturer's serving size. Divide this number by the actual number of servings you get out of the package in reality, then multiply each of the other numbers on the label by the result. For example, if a box of cereal says it contains 10 servings and you typically only get five bowlfuls out of it, you need to double every number on the label to get an accurate idea of what you are consuming. On foods that require preparation, it also is important to note whether the serving size is based on cooked or uncooked volume. For example, 1/2 cup of uncooked rice produces 1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked.
Now, we're armed with the mathematical key to understanding the four most important items on the nutrition facts label.
In addition to all the above measures, a nutrition facts label also indicates a percentage daily value for many of the nutrients listed. However, this number can be quite misleading since it is based on the manufacturer's serving sizes and assumes a 2,000 calorie diet. Rather than rely on these percentages, talk to your health care professional about healthy levels of calories, carbohydrates, fat and sodium you should consume given your health and activity levels. Then, know how to accurately determine what you are eating.