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Dietary Info That's Easier To Digest

Personal Business: Health


In case you haven't noticed, you no longer need a chemistry degree to decipher the labels on many packaged foods. New guidelines developed by the Food & Drug Administration should make designing a healthy diet a piece of cake. Some new labels are already in use, and the transition will be complete in May. Until then, seek out the new labels to get a better idea of what you're eating.

You can identify the new labels by the heading Nutrition Facts. They relay how much of health-linked ingredients, such as cholesterol, fat, carbohydrates, and sodium are in the product.

The FDA guidelines are based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet made up of 60% carbohydrates, 30% fat, and 10% protein--levels recommended by the National Academy of Science.

The labels use a new measure for nutrients, called percent daily values. This tells you how much of your daily allowance of, say, fat is in a given food. So if the daily value of total fat is 100% per serving, eating ene serving of that food will use up your fat allowance for the day.

LOOPHOLE. Weight watchers will find it easier to count calories with the new labels, which list the total calories as well as how many come from fat, which is hardest to burn. In addition, they identify saturated fats, which play a major role in raising cholesterol. One caveat: Trans-fatty acids found in margarine also raise cholesterol, but since technically they're not saturated, they're not included as saturated fats. The FDA is reviewing whether to change this.

The NAS says you should get no more than 10% of the recommended total daily fat allowance from saturated fats. Remember, your full daily quotient of saturated fat would equal 10% of your 30% overall fat allowance for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. The label also breaks down what percentage of carbohydrates come from fiber vs. sugar. The former aids digestion and may help reduce some forms of cancer, while the latter provides only calories. The NAS recommends an intake of 11.5 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories.

Serving sizes, once arbitrarily assigned by foodmakers, will now reflect amounts of a given food the average person would eat at a sitting: One can of soda is now considered one serving, for example, instead of two as in the past. These sizes are given in common household measures, such as a cup or teaspoon, as well as in metric measures. Because Americans get more than enough protein, that is not included as a daily value, says Ed Scarborough, director of the FDA's food labeling office.

The law also mandates that products labeled "light" or "fat-free" meet specific standards. Claiming a product has "low cholesterol" must mean it contains two grams or less of saturated fat or cholesterol. "Fat-free" and "sugar-free" indicate that the product contains less than 0.5 grams of fat or sugar per serving, and "reduced" means it has 25% less of a nutrient or calories than a reference product. That can apply to the same product group, such as snack foods, and not just the same product.

Finally, for the first time, foodmakers can make tentative health claims. A food that meets the criterion for "low-sodium" could bear a label saying that diets low in sodium may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

KIDS' TABLE. Not all products will sport all of the new labels even after the May 8 deadline. Very small companies don't have to use them, and labels may be limited by package size. They will also be shorter for products made for toddlers. For example, fat content won't appear in labels on foods for children under 2. Since they need fat for growth, its intake should not be restricted. Information about fresh food is voluntary, but the FDA says most retailers are providing it.

The new labels represent "a public health milestone," says Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. He expects the information to lead to more nutritious diets for more people and, consequently, to substantial health-care savings. Moreover, says Silverglade, "the labels will stimulate the development of more healthful processed foods." He sees it as the perfect marriage of marketing and education.Pam Black

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