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The labels on the foods your eat offer a great deal of information that can help you lose weight and stay healthy. Deciphering food labels, however, practically takes a Rosetta stone. Here are 10 rules for reading nutrition labels for useful information.

The nutrition facts label, also known as the nutrition information panel, can be one of your most useful tools in managing your weight and sustaining your health. Making sense of the information on the labels, however, usually requires a little knowledge beyond what the product makers provide. Here are 10 simple rules for making the most of nutrition information.

1. Food labels don't always tell the whole story with calorie counts.

Most food labels list calories per serving, but base that figure on unrealistic serving sizes. In the United States, most consumers prefer to eat the entire container of certain kinds of foods, but most manufacturers prefer to treat their products as containing multiple servings.

For instance, very few people will eat half of a 1-cup container of Haagen-Dasz Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream. Most people finish off the entire box in one sitting.

The label on the side of the carton states that this ice cream sets dieters back 340 calories per serving, but it is necessary to look above the panel to see that there are two servings in each container. Eating the cup of Haagen-Dasz provides 680 calories.

If dieters could easily see that the chocolate peanut butter fudge ice cream cup actually counts for 680 calories, they might instead choose Edy’s Slow Churned Double Fudge Brownie Ice Cream, which contains just 240 calories in the entire carton of ice cream. Most calorie-counters don't look that closely when they are in the mood for ice cream.

Another food that makes it easy to forget about diet resolutions is chips. Most single-serving sized bags of chips, in the United States, contain 36 chips. Most labels, however, list a serving as 12 chips. When consumers munch away at a whole package of chips, they consume three servings, not just one: 300 calories, not 100. Similarly, soft drinks may be labeled for 12-ounce servings for sold in 20-ounce bottles. Consumers get 167 percent of the calories per serving when they drink the entire bottle, as most consumers do.

Tiny Ecuador, incidentally, has devised a warning system to tip off consumers to problems with portion sizes, by requiring foods that are commonly overeaten with a red dot.

2. Some products contain "added sugar" as their main ingredient but do not list added sugar as their main ingredient.

Nearly everyone striving to eat healthy wants to avoid sugar. Product manufacturers know this. Some companies will list different types of sugar separately to avoid giving the impression that the main ingredient in the product is added sugar.

For instance, a sugar-sweetened cereal might list "whole grain flour" as its first ingredient, followed by high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, beet sugar, agave sugar, honey, and grape juice concentrate. All the different kinds of sugar added together may exceed everything else used in the product, but appear further down the list of ingredients because they are identified separately. The easiest way to deal with this issue is simply not to buy products that contain high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, beet sugar, agave sugar, honey, and grape juice concentrate.

3. High-fructose corn syrup is disguised under many other names.

Since the 1970's, North American food manufacturers have used much of their continent's enormous production of corn (maize) in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. As a sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup has a lot of things going for it. It contains both fructose and glucose sugar. Fructose (corn or fruit sugar) is much sweeter than sucrose (cane sugar). It absorbs moisture from the air and keeps products from drying out. It caramelizes to a deeper, darker, more attractive brown color.

Unfortunately, the human body simply can't process large amounts of fructose, more than about 6 teaspoons (25 grams, 100 calories) per day. Additional fructose becomes fat. Avoiding high-fructose corn syrup is a must for weight control, but it is labeled not just as high-fructose corn syrup or HCFS but also as isoglucose, glucose-fructose syrup / glucose/fructose, maize syrup, high-fructose maize syrup, or corn sugar.

All of these ingredients are foods to eat in small quantities very seldom or never at all.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Lisa Gosselin. Food Label Lies: How to Sort Truth From Hype, Huffington Post. 5 May 2011. Accessed 11 February 2015.
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