Who knows what a gram is? Europeans and cocaine dealers, that's who. But not law-abiding Americans, unless they happen to be dietitians, like me. I know that 5 grams (g) is about a teaspoon. So whenever I pick up a frozen dinner with 10 g saturated fat listed on the Nutrition Facts label, I see 2 spoonfuls of pallid, artery-clogging fat staring back at me. These labels started appearing on every item of packaged food in the United States in 1990.
At first, the law required a listing of calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, and sodium. In 1993, saturated fats and cholesterol were added. And in 2006, all labels will list food allergens and trans fats, the dangerous mutant gunk that's formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats so they'll stay stable on grocery-store shelves. Like most legislation, the labeling law was meant to be helpful. And it has been, mostly. Yet, 14 years later, many people still don't understand how to put the information into practice. Turn the page to find my guide to those labels-your Cliffs Notes for your next supermarket test.
1. Serving Size and Servings Per Container
How much food you're consuming.
Don't be fooled: For something that seems so simple, this part of the label can be tricky. What you consider to be one serving may be two or more. This is especially common with bottled beverages, such as iced tea, colas, and sports drinks. So that "100 calories" you glanced at on the label became 250 when you gulped down the whole bottle.
Use it: Serving size is listed at the top of the label for a reason. So read it first. Resist scarfing or chugging. Make sure you understand what a serving is.
The measure of energy a food provides.
Don't be fooled: By itself, this number means little. Calorie requirements are like TiVo settings-everyone's are different. Yours depends on your size and lifestyle. But some universal rules do apply. Too many calories and the surplus gets stored as fat. Too few and you lose weight. Or starve.
Use it: Crunch your numbers through the calorie calculator tool. Then remember your recommended intake.
3. Calories From Fat
The number of calories that come from the food's total fat count.
Don't be fooled: This number can vary greatly. But if you multiply it by three and get a number nearly as big as the total calories, proceed with caution. You'll have more reading to do.
Use it: Hate math? Ignore Calories from Fat and look at Total Fat instead.
4. % Daily Value
The percentage of daily intake the food supplies, based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.
Don't be fooled: You probably need more than 2,000 calories, unless you're an average-size man trying to lose weight. But you're a healthy, active Men's Health reader who just checked the calorie counter, so . . .