Decoding Nutrition Information
Get guidelines on deciphering the nutritional analysis on our recipes
Part of good cooking involves knowing how to make your food suit your tastes—and your health. Especially if you have medical issues, it helps to know the calories, sodium, and fat in a recipe—all targeted as substances to limit—so you can then adjust the ingredients. That’s why every Sunset recipe comes with an analysis of its main energy-yielding components, based on USDA guidelines: fat, protein, and carbohydrates, plus a tally of its sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol content.
Generally, the analysis is for a single serving. Also, if an ingredient is listed with a substitution, only the ingredient listed first is analyzed.
Optional ingredients, and those for which no stated amount is given, aren’t included in the calculations.
Here’s how to decode our nutritional footnotes:
CAL (CALORIES). How many you need to maintain your current weight depends on your height, on how active you are, and on your basal metabolic rate, which is a completely individual measure of how your body burns energy. As a benchmark for the calories an average person requires per day, the USDA suggests 2,000. Many women need less, and sedentary people need quite a bit less.
CAL. FROM FAT. The current advice from the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (health.gov/dietary guidelines) is that 20% to 35% of your daily calories come from fat. However, take this with a grain of salt, as it’s intended to apply to all the foods that you eat over the course of a day. Don’t let this dissuade you from any one individual recipe, and bear in mind that the numbers can be misleading: Take, for instance, a nice big green salad tossed with vinaigrette. Because the main ingredients are so low in calories, most of the calories will come from the vinaigrette, and the percentage of fat will make the salad seem like a high-fat food.
PROTEIN. A chain of amino acids that are the building blocks for all sorts of functions and structures within the body. The USDA recommendation is for 46 grams per day for adult women and 56 grams per day for adult men, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Most Americans eat far more protein than they need.
FAT. While fat can and should be part of a healthful diet, the type of fat makes a difference. Of the four main types of fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated—which come primarily from fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils—promote heart health. Saturated fats, which come mainly from animal sources, can raise “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Trans fats, mostly coming from the hydrogenation of oils, do this too, and also lower “good” (HDL) cholesterol. Both are linked to heart disease, but trans fats are coming under particular scrutiny. For now, the official recommendation is that no more than one-third of total calories should come from fat (less than 10 percent of calories should come from saturated fats, with trans fats as low as possible—less than 2 grams per day).
CARBO (CARBOHYDRATES). These provide glucose, the main energy source for our bodies. Carbs are the only source of fiber, which helps digestion and protects against heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Whole-grain sources of carbohydrates have much higher levels of fiber and nutrients than refined sources. The USDA suggests that carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 percent of total daily calories, with 25 grams of fiber in a 2,000-calorie diet.
SODIUM. A major mineral, it is essential to nerve transmission and muscle contraction. Salt (sodium chloride) is the main form of sodium in our diets, and too much of it can contribute to high blood pressure. Processed food is mainly to blame for the high-sodium diets so common today. The recommended daily maximum for sodium is 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon of table salt), but for adults over the age of 51, African Americans of any age, and anyone with diabetes, hypertension, or chronic kidney disease, the recommendation is 1,500 mg. (This lower limit is suggested for about half of the U.S. population, including children.)
CHOL. Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in all animal products. High levels of “bad” cholesterol in our bodies—low-density lipoproteins (LDL)—are linked to heart disease. The relationship between dietary cholesterol (from the foods we eat) and cholesterol made by our bodies is influenced by our genes and, frankly, not totally understood. The current guideline is to consume no more than 300 mg. a day.
GF (Gluten-free). No wheat, rye, barley, or oats. Check any processed food ingredients you use to verify they’re gluten-free.
LC (Low-calorie). Less than 500 calories for a main dish, 250 for a side dish, 150 for an appetizer, and 350 for dessert.
LS (Low-sodium). Less than 500 mg for a main dish, and 350 for a side dish, appetizer, or dessert.
V (Vegetarian). Contains no meat products.
VG (Vegan). Contains no animal products, including gelatin made with animal-derived ingredients.
Every now and then, we add a tag to a recipe that suits a healthy lifestyle.
Fast & Fresh. Recipes that use fresh ingredients and can be made in 30 minutes or less.
Healthy. Sunset defines a healthy recipe as one that contains mainly fresh, unprocessed ingredients such as vegetables and fruits, lean protein, nuts, and whole grains, and has moderate amounts of calories and fat. A healthy recipe may also be a lighter version of a standard recipe, such as deviled eggs made with Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise.