Riddle us this: Two-thirds of shoppers read nutritional labels, but fewer than half understand them. Experts say the first step to making sense of it all is to spend no more than 30 seconds scanning a label. We zero in on what matters.

By Rachael Ray Every Day
November 01, 2005
nutrition facts

1. SERVING SIZESize up your serving."Many Americans have a distorted idea of what a single portion looks like," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Registered dietitian Suki Hertz estimates that 90 percent of people are overeating without realizing it. A recent study shows that we typically pour ourselves about 1/3 cup more than the recommended amount of cereal. No need to use a measuring cup every time you sit down for cornflakes. Instead, measure the portion once and try to use the same bowl each time.

2. % DAILY VALUEDoes the "% Daily Value" column leave you 99.9 percent confused?.You're not alone. These percentages show the portion of daily allowances that one serving contains. Obey the 5/20 rule: Cholesterol and saturated fat should cap at around 5 percent, while vitamins, minerals and fiber should hover at 20 percent. And remember: Packaged foods should only supplement your meals. "As long as you ground your diet with fruits, veggies and lean protein, you should get the right balance of nutrients," says Hertz.

3. FATConsider the kind of fat..Unsaturated fats like mono- and poly- (shown on some labels, but not required by the FDA) help lower your risk of heart disease and "moisturize you from within," says Blatner, giving you shinier hair and more supple skin. On the other hand, trans fats -- aka partially hydrogenated oil -- raise your bad cholesterol and lower the good. Saturated fats are also a bad idea, as they increase your risk of heart disease.

4. SODIUMThat's a lot of sodium..Who hasn't picked up a can of soup, scanned the label and thought, Wow -- that's a lot of sodium. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 80 percent of sodium found in the average U.S. diet comes from processed and restaurant foods. Limit salt as much as possible since excess causes bloat and forces your heart to work harder. It can be tricky to judge sodium content in milligrams (the measurement used on nutritional labels), so use the %DV as a guideline.

5. SUGARSugar's crawling all over ingredient lists..Most sugars lack nutritional value and can hinder your ability to enjoy the subtle sweetness in foods like strawberries, says Blatner. And you're probably getting more than you realize. Hertz points out that manufacturers will now use multiple, different named sugars in a food (see highlighted words). Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so the separate sweeteners will appear lower on the list than they would have if grouped as one.

6. TOTAL CARBSCarbs fuel your body and brain.Just be sure you're eating the complex kind, such as whole grains, for lasting energy. "The greater the difference between 'total carbohydrates' and 'sugars' on a label, the more nutritious carbs the food is likely to contain," says registered dietitian Wendy Hess.