New labels let health-conscious shoppers gorge themselves on facts and figures Eating by the Numbers

May 04, 1994|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,Special to The Sun

I couldn't believe my eyes. My Russell Stover Easter egg assortment sported a Nutrition Facts label. I hesitated. Do I really want to know these facts? I needed to know, so I forged ahead. To my amazement I discovered two eggs total only 190 calories and 7 grams of fat. I could easily fit in one or two eggs a day, and still eat a healthy, lowfat diet. And that's just part of the beauty of these new labels.

In the past, only foods that made a nutrition claim were required by law to bear the old label called "Nutrition Information per Serving." So health-conscious consumers often limited their choices to a narrow range of diet products, simply because these were the only ones that had facts to work with. But under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, virtually all processed foods manufactured after May 8 will bear a Nutrition Facts label. Suddenly, the range of choices is limited only by the number of items on the grocery store shelves. Boredom becomes a thing of the past.

Suppose, for instance, you're concerned about heart disease. Your single most important food factor for lowering cholesterol is reducing saturated fat. In the past, only a few products voluntarily offered saturated fat information. Now everyone gets to show and tell. So if you've been tuna'd and turkeyed to death and you've overdosed on salad and need a little variety, how about creamed chipped beef?

Sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen, but look at the Nutrition Facts. Banquet Hot Sandwich Toppers offers a single serving packet of creamed chipped beef that contains only 1.5 grams of saturated fat. Put that in your lunch bag with a large baked potato and microwave them both at work. Add a handful of raw vegetables and a crunchy apple, and you're on the road to better health.

Still hungry? Toss in three Oreos. At 1.5 grams of saturated fat, your lunch totals 3 grams.

But is that a little or a lot? The Nutrition Facts label comes to your rescue with a brand new feature that does all the math for you. The "% Daily Values" (%DV) tells you how each nutrient in a food stacks up against 100 percent of your needs or limits, on a 2,000-calorie diet. Quite simply, if you can count to 100, you can eat healthfully.

%DV column tells all

By checking the chipped beef label in the %Daily Values column, you see that 1.5 grams of saturated fat is 8 percent of your total for the day. Add another 8 percent for the Oreos. Your lunch-time total is 16 percent of your limit for saturated fat. You still have wiggle room -- you have 84 percent of your saturated fat left to split among breakfast, snacks, and dinner.

Suppose you planned to eat a Banquet Extra Helping Salisbury Steak dinner that night. The label tells you it contains 19 grams of saturated fat, or 95 percent of your total for the day. That's too high to fit with today's totals. You might save that for another day, and substitute Green Giant Create A Meal Szechuan Stir Fry. When you make it with lean beef sirloin and a small amount of oil, you'll get another 16 percent of your saturated fat for the day. Add that to lunch for a total of 32 percent, and you're still within your daily limits.

Percent Daily Values can also help you increase needed nutrients, like fiber, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C. Here, your target is 100 percent or more. Go back to that stir-fry label. You get 19 percent of your fiber, 150 percent of your vitamin A, 60 percent of your vitamin C, and 25 percent of your iron for the day.

Edee Hogan, a Washington-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, points out the Nutrition Facts label is a wonderful tool for women who want to improve their nutrition -- getting more calcium, for instance -- because it shows "there is lots of calcium in mixed dishes, like that creamed chipped beef and many soups. And let's face it, most teens would rather have soup than sardines."

Ms. Hogan also says you'll learn from the label that "adding an extra can of beans to minestrone soup gives you 10 percent of your iron and 25 percent of your fiber for the day."

You can use %DV to keep a running total of the nutrients that most concern you, to compare products, or, if you're not a detail person, just to estimate how any one product fits in your diet.

Lenny Genova is an estimator-type. He's a Baltimore spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for development and implementation of the new labels. He says, "I like to think of the %DV as having $100 to spend in each category. If the fat, for instance, is 25 percent of the Daily Value, or $25, I could only eat four servings and I'd be out of fat for the day. That means don't eat too much of this food."

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