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Making Sense Of New Food Labels

The new nutrition labels on food packages are loaded with information, but a new study finds many Americans have trouble deciphering them.

On The Early Show Thursday, registered dietician Elisa Zied, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association says the study suggests many of us are finding the labels tough to chew on.

"People are having a lot of trouble," she told co-anchor Harry Smith. "The study found that people, even with high literacy levels, even with a lot of math skills, beyond ninth grade, are having trouble reading the label." And, people with lower-level math skills had even more trouble. "So, you've got to keep it simple."

In the study, which appeared in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 68 percent of the people involved couldn't calculate the amount of carbohydrates in a 20 ounce bottle of soda, because carbs are listed on the label based on an 8-ounce serving, not the full bottle. People couldn't do the arithmetic.

And, even if they knew how many carbs were in a whole bagel, 40 percent couldn't figure out the carb content of half a bagel.

The study urges manufacturers to make the labels clearer.

Until that happens though, Zied says there are ways to make your label life easier.

For instance, take cereals: When you look at the nutrition facts panel on cereal labels, it's best to just focus on a few key numbers to find healthful options. Look for at least 4 grams of fiber per serving, and 8 grams or less of sugar per serving. Then take a look at the ingredients list and make sure a whole grain is listed first.

Unfortunately, there's no standard serving size for cereal. Some packages list three-quarters of a cup as a serving, and others may list one-and-a-quarter cups. That can be very confusing when comparing cereals.

So, suggests Zied, don't complicate things. Use measuring cups to see what a single serving for your cereal is; if you usually consume that amount, you'll know from reading the label what you're getting in terms of calories and nutrients.

Once cup is a good rule of thumb for cereal serving sizes and many other foods, Zied points out, including pasta, rice, even beverages.

If you're away from home and can't readily measure what you buy, look for packages that provide single servings, especially when you buy snack foods, Zied urges. Look for those with no more than 100-150 calories, three grams or less of total fat, and zero grams of trans fat. If you buy items that have two or more servings, divide what you buy into single serving baggies to keep your portions in check. If you drink soda, forget those 20 ounce or one or two liter bottles — stick to 12-ounce cans.

And if you still have trouble making sense of those labels and food portions, go to a registered dietitian. He or she can teach you how to read labels and know what to look for when comparing different products.

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