Understanding Food Labels

Find out what to pay attention for on food labels to make healthy choices.

Reading food labels may not be as exciting as thumbing through the newest issue of your favorite magazine, but it can be an excellent guide for choosing foods. These parts of the food label will be most useful to you as you plan meals:

  • Calories. Counting every calorie you eat is unnecessary, but it's good to become aware of approximate calorie counts in foods to help you gauge whether to eat more or less.
  • Serving size. Servings are often smaller than you might expect. For example, the bowl of cereal you normally pour may be closer to 2 servings than 1 serving.
  • Sugars. The sugars referred to on the food label include sugar found in the food, such as lactose in milk and fructose in fruits, and those added to the food, such as table sugar, corn syrup, and dextrose. Don't be fooled by a label that boasts "no added sugar." It may still contain a lot of natural sugar. For example, 100-percent apple juice has no added sugar, but because of its high natural-sugar content, it can cause blood sugar levels to skyrocket. No matter where the sugar comes from, your body processes it in the same way.
  • Fiber. Aim for 25-35 grams of fiber a day.
  • Vitamins. The label lists whatever vitamins are in that food, along with the "percent of daily value." Use this as a rough guide, because your vitamin requirements during pregnancy are higher. All vitamins are important, but vitamin A, any of the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folic acid, B12 , biotin, and B5), and vitamins C and D are especially important.
  • Minerals. The food label lists whatever minerals are in that food, along with the "percent of daily value." Look for foods rich in calcium, zinc, and magnesium.
  • Sodium. You'll be shocked at how much sodium (salt) there is in the foods you eat. You expect to see a lot of sodium in a bag of pretzels or potato chips (approximately 210 to 250 mg per serving, depending on brand), but amazingly there's more sodium in a serving of raisin bran with a cup of skim milk (475 mg) than there is in pretzels. That doesn't mean you should have pretzels for breakfast instead of raisin bran in milk. It merely shows that checking food labels for sodium is enlightening. You do not need to restrict sodium during pregnancy. If you had high blood pressure and swelling with a previous pregnancy, however, you may want to keep your intake at moderate levels.

Originally published in You & Your Baby: Pregnancy.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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