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Benefits of knowing how to read a food label

Erica Lowenkron/Collegian

Erica Lowenkron/Collegian

Although many people ignore the clutter of numbers and percentages found on the back of every food and beverage package, food labels can help make a huge difference in the quality of life we live. Aside from weight watching, food labels give us direction in figuring out how to fuel our bodies for early-morning energy, late-night studying and before or after a workout. At the University of Massachusetts, the labels are made even simpler.

All the parts of a general food label are listed in terms of Percent Daily Value (DV). This percentage represents the amount that one serving contributes toward meeting the requirements of a nutrient per day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Serving size most often differs from the amount found in a package, so nutritional information usually needs to be adjusted accordingly.

Food labels aren’t just calorie calculators; they provide vital information about the nutritional value of what we are putting in our bodies. Many incidences of fatigue or a weak immune system are due to a micronutrient deficiency. Over half of all Americans are deficient in vitamin E, folate, calcium, magnesium and vitamin A. Keep in mind that foods with over 20 percent DV are considered high in that particular nutrient, while less than five percent is considered low.

Just like on regular food labels, the food labels in the dining commons have their ingredients listed in order from highest to lowest weight per serving. Servings are written in terms of ounces or number of pieces. UMass labels list the quantities of calories, sugars, proteins and sodium. Be wary of terminology. Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose and dextrose are all types of sugars.

At the top right corner of every food label are markers that indicate whether a dish is vegetarian, vegan, halal, whole grain, sustainable or grown locally, making it easy for students with certain dietary restrictions to grab food without poring over the small print of each label. Each UMass food label also includes a green healthfulness scale so students can get a quick gauge of the nutritional value and compare options.

The food labels in the dining commons are also extremely accommodating to students with allergies. Common allergens are listed in red at the bottom at the bottom of each label. Freshman nursing student Katherine Dos Santos makes daily use of the food labels in the dining hall to avoid ingesting foods containing nuts and soy, both of which she is allergic to.

“One of the deciding factors for me coming to UMass was that they labeled all of their food and made it very easy for me to see what I was able to and not able to eat,” Dos Santos said. “They also have a lot of soy free options.”

Falling asleep in class? Trying to pull an all-nighter? Having trouble getting through a workout? Reading a food label may help you make a choice that improves your performance in one of the following areas.

Late-night snack

If late nights at the library have you reaching for a midnight snack, choose a low-calorie option that contains minimal amounts of protein, fiber and fat. While it’s a myth that late-night eating is radically unhealthy, foods that are high in these ingredients may cause indigestion later in the night. Foods that are high in protein also contain the amino acid tryptophan, an amino acid commonly rumored to cause drowsiness.

Energy

When looking for a quick boost of energy, many of us find ourselves gravitating towards sugary snacks or caffeinated beverages. Choosing foods rich in iron (greater than 20 percent DV) may boost energy levels by allowing more oxygen to bind to cells and travel throughout the body. Pair it with foods rich in vitamin C to increase iron absorption for even better results.

Pre- and Post-Workout

For pre-workout, eat a mix of carbs, protein and a little bit of fat before working out. Carbs will provide energy, while protein will prevent breakdown of muscle and allow for faster recovery. The fat will slow down the absorption of both so the benefits last throughout the duration of a workout.

Despite the commonly held belief that you need to refuel the body with all the carbs you burned off, an ideal post-workout meal consists of protein-loading, not carb-loading. Most people eat a larger meal after working out, so take advantage of a post-workout dinner to consume some of the macro and micronutrients you may have missed throughout the day.

Food labels are meant to serve as a guide to healthy living, not a handbook. What’s most important is getting the nutrients you need while gradually eliminating some of the added substances that you don’t. Fluctuations in metabolism, activity level and even the weather can affect the amounts of nutrients and calories a person needs at any given time, so confining yourself to a rigid diet is neither healthy nor safe.

Lucy Matzilevich can be reached at lmatzilevich@umass.edu.

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