Functional Food Benefits: Deciphering Food Labels

Welcome to the course! This two-lesson course will assist you in making smart choices as you shop for products to maintain your healthy lifestyle. It covers the fine points of reading product labels and understanding ingredient lists so you can make healthy choices and have a sound basis for comparing products. You'll learn all about calories, how Daily Values and RDAs are calculated, and how to read Nutrition Facts Labels and ingredient lists like a pro, and more.

What the Course Will Cover
This course is designed for anyone who wants to understand the complexities contained within a Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredient listing, and then use their knowledge to make the right choices when shopping. Essentially, we'll be addressing the functional, real-world benefits of reading labels and understanding ingredients. After all, smart shopping matters. When the end result of your shopping experience is great health and increased energy, your knowledge is power -- the power to control what goes into your body and make informed choices. This course will assist you in:

Understanding what Daily Values are and how they are calculated
Exploring the concept of "calories" and understanding the purpose behind Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs)
Determining what is and isn't healthy on an ingredient list
Along with each lesson comes a fun assignment to further enhance your understanding of the material as well as an interactive quiz to test how well you have nailed down the core concepts of the course.

Remember, the Message Board is a key aspect of your learning experience. The more you contribute to the Message Board -- exchanging questions, concerns, ideas and tips -- the more both you and your classmates will benefit from each other's insight and experiences.

Now on to the course!

Throughout this lesson, we'll be taking a closer look at the data that's found on the Nutrition Facts Panel -- a label found on every food product sold in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all prepared food products (basically, anything that's not a whole food) to carry this label.

You may have noticed the "% Daily Value" column on Nutrition Facts Panels. What exactly is the Daily Value (DV), and how can it guide you in terms of food choices?

FDA-regulated products use the Daily Value as the basis for declaring their nutritional content. For each nutrient that a serving of food provides, the percent of the Daily Value is declared for that nutrient. For example, a typical can of tuna has 13 grams of protein; in the Daily Values column, you'll see "23%" under Daily Value.

The Percent Daily Values are based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories. This provides the user with a quick assessment of that food's nutrient value relative to their overall daily dietary needs. The Daily Value is essentially used to establish standards for comparing products.

The amount of nutrients -- in grams or milligrams per serving -- is listed to the right of each ingredient. However, the percent declaration of the Daily Value puts each nutrient in the context of a total daily diet. This puts nutrients on a level playing field, as opposed to viewing numerical amounts that cannot be easily related to total diet.

The Scoop on Descriptors
Daily Values emphasize quality as opposed to quantity. For example, the Daily Value provides a basis for thresholds that define descriptive words for nutrient content called "descriptors." A typical example of a descriptor would be "high fiber." If a serving of food provides 20 percent or more (5g or more) of the Daily Value for fiber, then the descriptor "high fiber" applies. In fact, if a food contains 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient in a serving, the word "high" is appropriate for use. Another common descriptor is "low-fat." If a serving of food has three grams or less of fat, then the descriptor could properly read "low-fat." In fact, a food with 5 percent Daily Value or less can be termed "low" in the case of that nutrient. Other descriptors using "low" (and their thresholds) are:

Low-saturated fat: 1g or less per serving
Low-sodium: 140mg or less per serving
Low-cholesterol: 20mg or less and 2g or less of saturated fat per serving
Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.
These descriptors help you assess the quality of nutrients per serving, encouraging more focus on real content as opposed to numerical counts. Moreover, the Daily Values are similar to the Atkins Advantage nutrition principles in that they both use descriptive indicators to convey nutritional quality. The five Atkins Advantage principles will have you reaping the benefits of great health and energy once you put them to use in your daily life:

High protein
High fiber
Low sugar
No trans fat
Adequate vitamins and minerals
These core principles will be revisited and explained later in this lesson. But for now, keep them in mind as we move forward.

Up Next
Let's take a look at what you need to know about calories.

What exactly do we mean by "calorie?" A calorie, essentially, is a unit of energy. A "food calorie," to be exact, is the amount of energy or heat that it takes to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius. Now let's look at calories per gram and what it means to you while shopping.

Calories by the Numbers
Carbohydrates: Each gram of carbohydrates has four calories.
Protein: Each gram of protein has four calories.
Fat: Each gram of fat has nine calories.
The number of calories in a food tells you how much potential energy that food contains. Therefore, by counting the number of fats, proteins and carbohydrates in a given food item, you can determine the amount of total calories for that food. The total calories listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel calculates it for you

In the best of worlds, the total calories on a label would list the amount of "empty" calories, which are those calories that are not nutrient-laden and therefore contain little or no nutritional value or added benefits. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. The empty calories in foods typically come from processed white flour and white sugar, and you will need to read the list of ingredients to find them. Empty calories aren't fulfilling, and in fact they are the type of calories that leave you wanting more and possibly causing you to eat more. Nutrient-dense foods -- the foods you eat when you're following the principles of the Atkins Advantage -- are more beneficial for your health and energy levels, weight maintenance and overall good nutrition. Thus, calories and their numbers are only a part of the whole picture.

Understanding RDAs
The RDA, or Recommended Dietary Allowance, refers to the daily intake level of nutrients that is considered adequate to meet the needs of nearly all (97 to 98 percent) normal, healthy individuals across all age groups and including both genders. RDAs are not found on the Nutrition Facts Label; however, they are often referred to in association with nutritional needs. These recommendations are established by the United States National Academy of Sciences.

The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences bases their recommendations upon nutritional research. Remember, these recommendations are based on a broad average in regards to "average" people, so active athletes need to consider that they may require a higher-than-average consumption of proteins and nutrients.

Did you know that RDAs have a margin of safety built in to help individuals avoid getting too little nutrition? The margin is such that you can typically consume at least two thirds (67 percent) of your RDA and still obtain the minimum requirement.

Coming Up
Let's gain further insight on the Nutrition Facts Label and all that it includes.

Once you understand the details of the Nutrition Facts Label, it will be your guide to a better understanding of what foods will contribute to your healthy diet -- being informed about all facets of the Nutrition Facts Label will definitely be to your benefit! Let's break it down in sections, and examine the relevance of each.

Breaking It Down
First, the Nutrition Facts Label is divided into two main parts: the top or main section with product-specific information and the bottom section (not always included) with a footnote with Daily Values for 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diets and general dietary information. At the top you'll see the serving size and number of servings within the package. Remember to take into consideration the number of servings you are consuming when calculating your nutritional intake. Some manufacturers keep the serving size unrealistically small to make their product appear healthier than it really is.

Next is the calorie measure, along with the number of calories that come from fat, protein and carbohydrates. Remember that each gram of fat has nine calories, so the total number of grams of fat times nine will give the amount of fat calories for one serving. The number of calories from carbohydrates and protein are multiplied by 4 to get total number of calories from carbohydrates or protein.

Below the calorie measure is the section on nutrients. The first three nutrients listed are the ones that the FDA thinks you should limit in your diet: fat, cholesterol and sodium. Trans fat and saturated fat amounts are also required on the Nutrition Facts Label.

Most Americans take in more calories than they need, yet do not get the recommended intake for many important nutrients. This is because many people over consume "empty" calories -- ones that have little or no nutritional value -- and don't get enough good proteins, healthy fats and fiber-rich carbohydrates.

Below the "nutrients to be limited" section is the breakdown for carbohydrates, along with the protein count. Carbohydrates are broken down between dietary fiber and sugars. Foods high in fiber are a welcome addition to a healthy diet, as opposed to those high in sugar content. A high sugar content, high-calorie food is a sign of a food with empty calories as opposed to nutrient-loaded calories.

The sugars you see on the Nutrition Facts Panel include natural sugars, such as those found in fruit and milk, as well as sugars that are added to foods for taste appeal. To know if a product contains added sugar you will need to read the list of ingredients and look for the following: high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, malt syrups, maltose, cane sugar and honey.

Next on the label is an Atkins Advantage essential: protein. The Nutrition Facts label has no specific details relating to protein. Plant foods provide protein, but meat, fish, and eggs are indispensable to providing the essential amino acids needed to build and repair your body. No % Daily Value is required for protein unless it is said to be "high protein" or meant for use by children under the age of four .A product with a "high protein" claim can claim x % of daily value if the source of protein contains a full array of amino acids.

The last part of the main section of the Nutrition Facts Label contains the information for micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals. This is an option on the Nutrition Facts Label. At the bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label is the footnote "Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet." This appears on all Nutrition Facts Labels, however, other footnote information is not necessary if the label is too small.

Last, and perhaps most important, is the Daily Value (DV) information for each nutrient, listed on the far right side. The % Daily Value is the percent of the recommended daily amount of a nutrient in a serving of food, as we discussed earlier in the lesson.

Coming up next, we'll review and expand upon the Atkins Advantage principles and explore why they are the core of your nutritional needs.

Remember when we touched on the Atkins Advantage principles earlier in this lesson? The Atkins Advantage, overall, stresses the importance of quality nutrition as opposed to merely meeting recommended levels of particular nutritional values. These principles are, in essence, the core of all that's important to your health. Let's expand on them so you can understand how the Nutrition Facts Label can help to fulfill those principles and your goals.

High protein: A constant supply of protein is needed in order to ensure the building of muscle and the repair of tissue. Protein, in fact, is the only nutrient that we cannot live without. Those who are particularly active -- especially competitive athletes -- will need more protein than the average, sedentary person in order to sustain performance, ability, weight maintenance, and energy. Protein is the key to a healthy, energized life!
High fiber: Fiber fights fat, and helps you to eat less. It's oftentimes underutilized as a great source of vigor and long-lasting health. Foods high in fiber should be consumed throughout the day in order to sustain its benefits.
Low sugar: A diet low in sugar is a diet that avoids, or minimizes, all those empty carbohydrates that are void of nutritional benefits. Avoiding sugar means keeping away the low energy and excess body fat that usually accompany it. When you consume carbohydrates, make sure they're low-glycemic carbohydrates that will keep energy levels from to going up and down like a rollercoaster.
No trans fats: One of the most notable changes to affect the Nutrition Facts Label was the change to mandatory trans fat information, effective January 2006. Trans fats, in effect, are formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats. When hydrogen is added to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation, trans fat is produced. Zero trans fats is the ideal, so avoiding this unhealthy fat is best for you in the long run.
Plenty of vitamins and minerals: Bear in mind that these are the "micronutrients" on the Nutrition Facts Label. We need vitamins and minerals to sustain life. Eating balanced meals throughout the day increases your chances that you are maintaining a diet of nutrient-loaded calories. Place some focus on this part of the Nutrition Facts Label and make quality choices!
Let's Keep Moving
This course has covered some important elements in regards to the Nutrition Facts Label and how you can use it to your healthful advantage. It's there for you, so use it! We covered the important aspects of Daily Values, calories, RDAs, and the label rundown. Now let's move on to Lesson 2 and bring all this information together into a comprehensive package that helps you make smart, healthy choices every time.

Welcome to Lesson 2! In the first lesson we explored all of the important concepts that are a part of the Nutrition Facts Label: Daily Values, calories, nutrients and RDAs. You looked at the different parts of the Nutrition Facts Label and learned how to interpret the given data. Now we are going to cover, in further detail, some of the more important aspects of the Nutrition Facts Label, such as sugars and fats. We'll also discuss product ingredients and what to look for when you shop. Last, we'll turn to some general FAQs concerning this entire course.

Sugar and Your Health
To return to the Atkins Advantage principles, the low-sugar principle is a clear winner. High sugar content adversely affects your blood sugar levels and provides no vitamins or minerals. Clearly, it fits the criteria for empty calories. You are taking in the calories that count toward your day's total calories, but you are not getting the Recommended Daily Allowance for any nutrients whatsoever.

Maintaining an even keel in regards to blood sugar is vital to maintaining consistent energy and optimal health. Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, or glycemic control, is accomplished by eating well-balanced meals several times throughout the day. You've heard it before: eating five or six meals throughout the day is far superior to eating three larger meals spaced several hours apart. Let's look at why this is so.

What's the Glycemic Index?
The glycemic index (GI) refers to the rate at which sugar (glucose) levels rise in the blood after you eat a given carbohydrate food. Foods are rated accordingly, using a Glycemic Index chart. A food with a high GI causes glucose levels to rise rapidly whereas a low GI food is converted more slowly. The more rapidly your blood sugar rises, the higher the level of insulin needed to knock your blood sugar back down to normal. Therefore, since low-glycemic carbs enter your bloodstream much more slowly -- alleviating that surge of insulin -- they are vastly preferable to high-glycemic carbohydrate foods for maintaining balanced blood sugar levels.

As a general rule, white rice, white pasta, white breads and processed grains, as well as many juices, are high-glycemic foods. If you are eating a serving of a food that is high glycemic, be sure to balance that with an equal serving of protein and fiber to slow down the release of sugar into the blood stream

Living the Low-Sugar Life
The Nutrition Facts Panel will tell you the total sugar content of a product. However, if the product contains any added sugars, the ingredients list must also show this fact. Within the ingredients, look for culprits such as high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, fructose, sugar, dextrose, maltose and various syrups, or malts. Along with trans fats, too much of these added sugars present one of the biggest challenges to the average American diet. Currently, Americans consume an average of 156 pounds of added sugar per person per year.

Following the low-sugar principle simply means moderating sugars and trying to avoid as much as possible high sugar content that preserve and sweeten our foods.

You have control when it comes to food and how your food makes you feel. Following the Atkins Advantage principles on a consistent basis will find you healthy, happy, and vigorous!

Next Up
Now let's turn our attention to product ingredients and shopping.

In the first lesson, the Nutrition Facts Label was the main focus of your learning. A typical product includes an ingredient listing in addition to the Nutrition Facts Label. Now we'll take a look at why it's important to compare and contrast ingredients from product to product.

What to Look For
Within an ingredients listing on a product, the product's ingredients are always listed in descending order according to weight, meaning that the ingredient measured in the greatest amount is listed first, and the one with the least amount is last. Following the Atkins Advantage principles, if the following ingredients are listed at or near the top of the ingredients list, you should limit intake:

High-fructose corn syrup
Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated ingredients
Comparison Shopping
When comparing products, once again, look toward the Atkins Advantage principles to guide your food choices toward foods that are:

Low in sugar
Free of trans fats
High in protein and fiber
Complete in vitamins and minerals
Choosing foods that adhere to these principles ensures that you are getting nutritious, healthy food. For instance, let's do some comparisons in regards to fat. Your body needs healthy fats! Those are called essential fatty acids. These healthy fats help to slow down or regulate the rate at which glucose enters the blood stream, thus the reason to eat well-balanced meals including fats, fiber-rich carbohydrates and protein. Fish, seeds, nuts and various plants contain these healthy fats, which perform a vital nutritional role as building blocks for hormones and cell membranes.

Note that certain hydrogenated oils are trans-fatty acids. To avoid trans fats look for hydrogenated oils in the ingredient listing -- a sure sign that the product contains "trans fats." In fact, on the ingredient listing, a "partially hydrogenated" anything means it's a trans fat, so put it back on the shelf!

Even with the new rule changes for the Nutrition Facts Label, manufacturers can still list "zero" under trans fats if there is half a gram or less per serving of the food.. This is why you must read the ingredients list to determine if the product contains any trans fat.

Labeling Carbohydrates
The Nutrition Facts Label lists the total grams of carbohydrates, and then it includes the breakdown between dietary fiber and sugar. Look for the empty calories here! Sugar has no nutritional value, whereas fiber does. When comparing items, look for the foods that are richest in fiber and lowest in sugar.

Next Up
We'll explore how Atkins Advantage products offer superior ingredients.

Atkins Advantage products prove that it's possible to make great-tasting products that are low in glycemic impact and include only the best, most valuable nutrients -- without having to resort to high sugar content.

When it comes to fats, again, Atkins Advantage does not offer products that include trans fats. In fact, keeping healthy nutrition in mind every step of the way: all of our products are high in protein, high in fiber and full of vitamins and minerals; they're also low-glycemic, low in sugar and contain no trans fats. Using the information you've learned in the course, feel free to compare them to all the other products. Even many of the so-called "healthy" bars and shakes are loaded with sugars, as this comparison chart shows.

Many nutritionists agree that over-consumption of sugars is a contributing factor to America's diabetic epidemic. This makes reading labels a crucial endeavor in order to understand the full impact of the foods you eat.

Next Up
FAQs about labels and food packaging.

Now that we've covered some of the major points in regards to labels and their use, this FAQ section should assist in answering any remaining questions you may have about the material. We'll also look at some new issues to give you a more well-rounded approach to nutrition labeling.

I'm confused by RDAs. What's the difference between RDAs and RDIs or DRIs? The RDI is the Reference Daily Intake, something that replaced the term "U.S. RDA." The U.S. RDAs are the values determined by the FDA. The RDAs -- not to be confused with "U.S. RDA" -- are the values determined by the National Academy of Sciences for various population groups and used by FDA to figure the U.S. RDAs. The RDI, then, is essentially the old RDA. The DRI (Daily Reference Intake) is inclusive of the RDA and other measurements all taken together, and is gradually becoming the more accepted form for nutrient recommendations and may perhaps replace the RDA over time.
How do food labels address allergens in food? Allergens can be inhaled or eaten and cause an allergic reaction. Common food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, seafood and shellfish, soy, milk, wheat, egg, sesame and legumes. Food allergies are not yet curable, so reading ingredient labels for all foods is the key to maintaining control over the allergy. If a product doesn't have a label, allergic individuals should avoid that food.
What areGMOs? GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. This refers to an organism whose genetic material has been modified via DNA technology. A Genetically Modified Food is derived from a GMO (such as a yeast, animal/microbe, or crop plant). So far, the United States does not require special labeling to indicate the use of this technology in foods. The long-term affects and risks of Genetically Modified Foods are still being assessed by the FDA.
How does the NAC (Net Atkins Count) affect me? The Atkins NAC count, which you'll find displayed on Atkins Advantage nutrition bars and shakes, is an effective index of how a food affects your blood sugar. The NAC utilizes a patent-pending, clinical method that takes into account the glycemic impact of certain ingredients contained within the actual food serving, and it's been tested on real people. Therefore, the Atkins NAC measures the amount of carbohydrates that directly affect the blood sugar. This new method uses scientific research to help provide accuracy.
Wrapping Up
In this lesson, we've discussed sugar and the glycemic index, ingredients labels and comparison shopping, the nutrition advantage of Atkins Advantage products and some topics and definitions concerning labeling and general information,

Once again, do the assignment and take the quiz, then visit the Message Board to share your questions, concerns, personal stories and knowledge with other students.

Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to work through this course. Now that you have a better sense of what the labels mean and functional health benefits you can enjoy by making smart shopping choices, enjoy the renewed sense of energy and vigor you get from following the Atkins Advantage principles!

Disclaimer: Nothing contained on this Site is intended to provide health care advice. Should you have any health care-related questions, please call or see your physician or other health care provider. Consult your physician or health care provider before beginning the Atkins Diet as you would any other weight loss or weight maintenance program. The weight loss phases of the Atkins Diet should not be used by persons on dialysis or by pregnant or nursing women.