The Skinny on Understanding Food Labels
Nutrition labeling is mandatory for
most packaged food in the United States, and is regulated by the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately for many, what is on the labels can be difficult to understand for many. Additionally many companies legally and deliberately mislead consumers. With our help, learn how to read the labels and minimize your chances for being misled.
Labeling Terms & Their Meanings
In order to
understand food labels completely it is important to be familiar with,
and understand key terms used on food labels. Here are some of the
according to government mandated definitions:
Key Food Nutrition Label Terms and Their Meanings
Means that it has less than 0.5g
Indicates that the product has at
least 25% less sugar per serving.
No Sugar Added
Products are those that have had
no sugar added during processing or packing. They do include products that
already contain natural sugar such as dried fruit and juice.
Means that the product is fewer
than 5 calories per serving.
Is an item that contains 40
calories or less per serving.
Is less than 0.5g of fat per
Saturated Fat Free
Tells you that the product
contains less than 0.5g per serving and the level of trans fatty acids is no
more than 1% of the total fat.
Is 3g or less of fat per serving
and if the serving is 30g or less or 2 tablespoons or less, per 50g of the
Low Saturated Fat
Informs the consumer that 1g or
less per serving and not more than 15 percent of the total calories are from
Reduced Or Less Fat
Can be used on the label if at
least 25 percent less per serving than the original reference food.
Reduced Or Less Saturated Fat
Is at least 25 percent less per serving.
Means that the product has 50%
less fat than the same regular product. Can also be used to mean one third
fewer calories or 50% less sodium.
Means less than 10 grams of fat 4 grams saturated fat and 95 mg of
Means less than 5 grams of fat, 2
grams saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol
Is any product that contains less
than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2g or less saturated fat.
Refers to an item that is 20mg or
less and 2g or less of saturated fat per serving; and if the serving is 30g
or less or 2 tablespoons or less, per 50g of the product.
Reduced Or Less Cholesterol
Indicates a product has at least
25 percent less and 2g or less of saturated fat per serving.
Is less than 5mg per serving.
Means the product is 140mg or less
Very Low Sodium
Is an item with 35mg or less per
Reduced Or Less Sodium
Requires that the product be at
least 25 percent less per serving.
Is any product that contains 5 or
more grams per serving. High fiber claims must also meet the criteria for low
fat or the level of total fat must be shown next to the high fiber claim.
Good Source Of Fiber
Refers to products with 2.5 to
4.9g per serving.
More Added Fiber
Products must contain at least
2.5g more per serving than the original reference food.
Label Nutrition Claims
understanding the food label, consumers should understand the terms
above because many food manufacturers make several health claims using
the terms above. Studies show consumers are often confused or actually
misunderstand the terms. Many manufacturers actually use this confusion
to their advantage when marketing their products.
special diets because of allergies or other special health conditions need to be aware of nutrition claims posted on foods.
Failure to understand the labels could put their health at risk. For
instance, some food labels make claims that they're low in cholesterol or low in fat. But these claims have very specific meanings that most of
us aren't aware of. However, although these claims can only be used if a food
meets strict government definitions, you have to be careful you don't
misunderstand them. For example, the standard for "reduced or less"
is always at least 25 percent lower than the reference or original food.
Although a label may say that the food is reduced fat or reduced sodium that only means that the amount of fat or sodium has been reduced by 25% from the original
product. So if the original product was high in fat or
sodium the reduced product will be a notch lower but will likely still be
Even if a food is low in fat, the food may not necessarily be nutritious. Even a low-fat
food can be high in sugar. Food companies also may make claims such as "no
there is no animal fat used in making the product), but that does not necessarily
mean the product is low in fat.
Nutritional Food Labeling- The Nutrition Facts Panel
The nutrition facts panel typically
consists of the following components:
- Serving size information
- Calorie information
- Percent daily value (based on a 2000-calorie diet)
- Nutrient information, and
- A footnote of recommended daily values for standard
2000- and 2500-calorie diets
Unfortunately as simple as this panel appears to be, many consumers do
not know how to read it, and determine what the information on it
truely means. All is not lost however, studies have shown that with
help in deciphering them the Nutrition Facts label can be an effective
educational tool to increase nutrition knowledge.Most people think they understand
most of what's important on the food/nutrition labels - for example the number
of calories and maybe even the amount of carbohydrate, fat, and protein in
the food or supplement. But they're wrong because it's just not that easy to
understand and use without some guidance.
The ability to read and evaluate
food labels is not just a matter of choosing to eat healthy. To those of us
trying to gain muscle mass and improve body composition choosing the right mix
of foods can be critical to our success. And for people trying to manage
chronic disease like heart ailment or diabetes, label reading
can at times even be a life saving matter.
Information that a Food Label Must Contain
Under the label's
"Nutrition Facts" panel, manufacturers are required to provide
information on certain nutrients. The mandatory (underlined) and other
components that could be listed, and the order in which they should (and in
some cases must) appear are:
- Total calories
- Calories from fats
- Calories from saturated fats
- Total fat
- Saturated fat
- Trans fat
- Polyunsaturated fat
- Monounsaturated fat
- Total carbohydrate
- Dietary fiber
- Soluble fiber
- Insoluble fiber
- Sugar alcohols (for example, the sugar substitutes
xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol)
- Other carbohydrates (the difference between total
carbohydrate and the sum of dietary fiber,
sugars, and sugar alcohol if declared)
- Amino acids
- Vitamin A
- Percent of vitamin A present as beta-carotene
- Vitamin C
- Other essential vitamins
- Caffeine content (especially in various commercial
drinks such as sodas and energy drinks)
What To Look For on a Food Nutrition Label
Knowing what to look for is the first step in understanding nutrition facts
labels. The Nutrition Facts Label gives a lot of information but the key is to
know how to use this information to help you make the food choices that are
right for you.
If you look on the FDA site at
you'll find information on how to understand and use the nutrition facts label.
The illustration I'm using below is a sample label for macaroni and cheese from
The FDA added the colors to the label for illustration purposes.
The label is meant to
give you specific information on what's in each food product, information that
you can use for healthy eating and achieving your goals. The nutrients on a label are ordered
from what we should limit, such as fat, cholesterol, and sodium, to those nutrients we need to make sure
we get enough of, such as dietary fiber, vitamin A & C, calcium and iron.
However, as we'll see, while this information is useful it does have
Top to Bottom Review of the Food Label
When you're looking at the Nutrition Facts label on the food product begin your
reading at the top of the label with the food's recommended serving size and
number of servings per package.
Be sure to compare the serving size
to how much you eat. For example, serving size may be 1 cup and you may eat two
cups. In that case you're eating double the serving size so you need to double
the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the percent daily value.
Continue down the label to total calories and calories from fat. Total calories, which includes the calories from fat - and from carbohydrates and proteins, is the amount
of calories per recommended serving.
Calories from fat is the total calories in one serving that come from fat. The reason that total calories from fat is listed, and not total calories from carbohydrates and proteins, is because of
the emphasis in the last few decades about the health effects of lowering fat in the diet.
Putting this information on the
label allows people to easily monitor the amount of fat
in their diets,
with the general recommendation being that no more than 30% of daily calories
come from fat. This translates to no more than 600 calories of an
allowable 2000 calories should come from fat. Knowing the total calories from a portion of food allows
you to compare the amount of calories in how much you will eat of the food to
the total calories you need for a day. If you are trying to manage your weight,
foods that are lower in calories will help. Even small differences in
calories per serving can add up over the course of a day.In the
following example you will see that the total calories per serving is
250, with 110 calories coming from fat (good fat? bad fat? At this point
we do not know, but as we read further don the food label, we will know)
Using some simple calculations you
can figure out how much of the difference between total calories and calories
from fat comes from carbohydrates and proteins. You can also
simply figure out the number of calories that comes from carbohydrates and from protein by multiplying
the grams of each by 4.
- 1 gram of fat contains about 9 calories.
- 1 gram of protein contains about 4 calories.
- 1 gram of carbohydrate contains about 4 calories.
Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium
Next down the line in food labels is
information on nutrients that most people should limit, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
This is the total amount of fat in a serving. While it's recommended that total fat be low, today the consensus is that between 20 and 30% of
our daily calorie intake should come from fats.
Trans Fat and Cholesterol:
Saturated fat and trans fat are considered bad fats because of their ability to raise cholesterol levels (as can
dietary cholesterol) and increase
the risk of heart disease.
Saturated fat is found in greater amounts in butter, cheese, whole milk,
whole milk products, meat and poultry.
Trans fats are used by
food processors to increase the shelf life of processed food. Foods high in trans fats include stick
margarine, vegetable shortening, cookies, crackers, snack foods, fried foods
and other processed foods. Since consumer awareness about trans fat has recently increased many food manufacturers are trying
to decrease or eliminate trans fat from their products.
As of January 2006 food
manufacturers in the US must list trans fat on all their products (see www.cfsan.fda.gov).
If the product comes from outside the US and the amount of trans-fat is not listed, look in the ingredients list for words such
as "partially hydrogenated oils." This indicates trans-fats are probably in the product.
Some dietary supplements, for
example high protein/sports/energy/nutrition
bars, and meal replacements, may contain trans fat from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil as well as
saturated fat and cholesterol. Because of
this the FDA requires trans fat levels be on the label if a dietary supplement contains 0.5
gram or more trans fat per serving.
Cholesterol, while necessary for the
endogenous production of many substances in the body including vitamin d and some hormones, can become a problem if it's too high.
In most cases, since it's not
required by the FDA, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, are not listed on the label. If they're not listed then
you can get an estimate of how much total unsaturated fats (although not individual amounts) is in the food by
subtracting the trans and saturated fats from the total fat.
Sodium, mainly from salt naturally
present in food or added, more commonly added to food, can contribute to fluid
retention and high blood pressure and thus should be limited. Knowing how much
sodium is in food can be especially useful for bodybuilders looking to limit
their sodium intake during contest preparation, or alternately to sodium load.
Information On Carbohydrates & Protein
Information on the other two macronutrients is
also found on the labels.
Carbohydrates are broken down into total carbohydrates (carbs), fiber, and sugars.
This is the amount of total
carbohydrate per serving measured in grams. Carbohydrates are primarily found in starches, fruits, vegetables, milk
and sweets. Carbohydrates counting is used in diabetes meal planning.
Total carbohydrates combines all the carbohydrates in a food including fiber, sugars, starches, sugar alcohols and glycerin.
This is the amount of indigestible
(insoluble fiber) or partially digestible (soluble fiber) bulk from plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole
grains, oats, nuts and seeds and is measured in grams. Foods high in fiber are shown to be beneficial for weight control, diabetes, high cholesterol and
some forms of cancer. Foods with five grams of fiber or more are considered "high fiber" foods.
These are part of the Total carbohydrates content and are measured in grams. These contain sugars
from natural, normally present in the food, and added sugars.
You can see which sugars have been
added by looking at the ingredients list - for example, glucose, fructose,
sugar, dextrose, maltose, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate,
turbinado, maple syrup, molasses, barley, and malt. Other ingredients are
treated like sugar and should be counted as carbohydrates by those on low carbohydrates diets.
These include sugar alcohols, such as maltitol, xylitol, and sorbitol, and
glycerin. These added sugars, along with trans fats, should be
avoided by anyone trying to improve body composition, health and performance.
Although there has been a case made for the use of sugars post exercise, I believe that the use of simple sugars is counter
productive at any time.
Keep Carbs In Context
If you're counting carbohydrates you need to
consider most of the total carbs in a product to arrive at the number
use in your carbohydrate counting. There are a number of issues to
since many manufacturers use various tricks to significantly understate
products carbohydrate content. There are times when a carbohydrate is
not a carbohydrate, and when something which isn't technically
considered a carbohydrate is in fact a carbohydrate. The confusion
mainly stems from the food and supplement industry.
The Food Label terms for carbohydrate as defined by the FDA can be
confusing however some of the definitions are straightforward, such as.
Carbohydrate: calculated by subtraction of the sum of the crude
protein, total sugar, moisture, and ash from the total weight of the
food. "Sugars: the sum of all free mono- and disaccharides (such as
glucose, fructose, lactose, and sucrose)."
Alcohol: "the sum of saccharide derivatives in which a hydroxyl group
replaces a ketone or aldehyde group whose use in the food is listed by
FDA (mannitol, xylitol) or is generally recognized as safe
(sorbitol)."# Other Carbohydrates: "the difference between total
carbohydrate and the sum of dietary fiber, sugars, and sugar alcohols
Glycerin, And Glycerine. FDA nutrition labeling regulations require
that when glycerin is used as a food ingredient, it must be included in
the grams of total carbohydrate per serving declaration. Also, when the
label of a food containing glycerin has a statement regarding sugars,
the glycerin content per serving must also be declared as sugar alcohol.
As straightforward as these
definitions are the manufacturers have succeeded in muddying the waters by
introducing some new phrases to describe the carbohydrate content of their
The relatively new phrases "net
carb," "low carb," and "impact carb" are not FDA
definitions but rather created by companies so that you'll see their product on
the shelves and be attracted enough by what they're saying that you'll buy the
product.They were created to jump on the "low carb" bandwagon, and piggy back the Atkins diet craze.
Calculating Net Carb
To calculate the "net
carb," companies subtract the grams of fiber, sugar alcohols, and glycerin from the total carbohydrates. Te theory behind this term is that the body does not digest fiber so it shouldn't be counted as part of the total carbohydrates, and that glycerin and sugar alcohols don't increase insulin or blood glucose levels like sugars and
starches do.However, in my personal opinion sugar alcohols, glycerin and even soluble fibershould not just be discounted away. While aking the
strict definition of carbohydrate
suits the food industry and increases sales, it is still decieving the
public as far as the usefulness of their products for those on
Soluble fiber, sugar alcohols, alcohol, lactate, pyruvate and glycerol
still cause effects to the body and should not be readily discounted
just because food companies wishing to push their prod ucts say so.
This listing, measured in grams,
tells you how much total protein is in a single
serving of a food. While there are differences in the biological value and
effects of various protein sources, there
is no distinction made for the type of protein or the source.
Also amino acids and peptides (including glutamine peptides from hydrolyzed
wheat gluten) are not included as they're not considered whole food proteins.
The only two vitamins on the food
label are vitamins A
and C, presumably because of their
historical importance to health. Both are measured in percentages since the
idea is to take in 100% of each of these nutrients daily in order to prevent
Calcium and Iron are the
only minerals required on labels. They are measured in percent daily values.
The ingredient list is another part
of the Nutrition Label and gives you an overview of everything that's in the
product. The ingredients are listed according to how much of the ingredient the
food contains. Not only are the macronutrient ingredients listed but other
ingredients such as spices, preservatives, artificial coloring and flavors are
also listed on the ingredient list. The ingredient list can help you determine
whether the food is right for you, depending on your views on what you want and
don't want to put in your body.
Percent Daily Values
The Percent Daily Value, listed in
the right hand column in percentages, is the percentage of each nutrient
recommended to meet the needs of the average person each day in a 2000-calorie
diet. This and is measured in grams and milligrams depending on the nutrient.
tells you if the nutrients in a serving of food contribute a lot or a little to
the recommended daily intake. The goal is to eat 100% of each of those
nutrients every day. For example, if a serving of a food is listed as 25% of
the daily value of protein, then that food provides 25% of your daily protein needs based on
a daily intake of 2,000 calories.
Percent daily value is a useful
measure of whether a food is high or low in specific nutrients. A food is
considered a good source of a nutrient if the percentage is between 10% and
19%. If a food has 5% or less it's considered to be low and if it has more than
20% of the percent daily value, it's considered to be high in that nutrient.
Food Label Footnotes
Note the asterisk * used after the heading "%Daily Value" on the
Nutrition Facts label. It refers to the Footnote in the lower part of
the nutrition label, which tells you "%DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie
This statement must be on all food labels. But the remaining
information in the full footnote may not be on the package if the size
of the label is too small. When the full footnote does appear, it will
always be the same. It doesn't change from product to product, because
it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans--it is not about
a specific food product. Look at the amounts circled in red in the
footnote--these are the Daily Values (DV) for each nutrient listed and
are based on public health experts' advice. DVs are recommended levels
of intakes. DVs in the footnote are based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie
diet. Note how the DVs for some nutrients change, while others (for
cholesterol and sodium) remain the same for both calorie amounts.
How the Daily Values Relate to the %DVs
Look at the example below for another way to
see how the Daily Values (DVs) relate to the %DVs and dietary guidance.
For each nutrient listed there is a DV, a %DV, and dietary advice or a
goal. If you follow this dietary advice, you will stay within public
health experts' recommended upper or lower limits for the nutrients
listed, based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet.
Examples of DVs versus %DVs Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet
| Sat Fat
| Dietary Fiber
Upper Daily Limits
The nutrients that have "upper daily limits"
are listed first on the footnote of larger labels and on the example
above. Upper limits means it is recommended that you stay below - eat
"less than" - the Daily Value nutrient amounts listed per day. For
example, the DV for Saturated fat (in the yellow section) is 20g. This
amount is 100% DV for this nutrient. What is the goal or dietary
advice? To eat "less than" 20 g or 100%DV for the day.<Lower Limit -
Eat "At least"...Now look at the section in blue where dietary fiber is
listed. The DV for dietary fiber is 25g, which is 100% DV. This means
it is recommended that you eat "at least" this amount of dietary fiber
per day.The DV for Total Carbohydrate (section in white) is 300g or
100%DV. This amount is recommended for a balanced daily diet that is
based on 2,000 calories, but can vary, depending on your daily intake
of fat and protein.Now let's look at the %DVs.
Other Important Information that May Be Contained on a Food Label
Another relatively unregulated area
is the caffeine content of various
drinks, mostly coffee and tea, carbonated beverages and energy drinks, and
foods, mostly chocolate, especially dark chocolate, and coffee flavored yogurt
and syrup. When caffeine is added to foods and beverage it must appear in the
list of ingredients on the label. However, manufacturers aren't required to
list the amount of caffeine.
Only a minority of companies
voluntarily state the amount of caffeine in their product on their labels.This is a problem with carbonated beverages and especially
the new crop of energy drinks, with the energy coming almost 100% from the
caffeine (and related compounds) content even though it may have several other
ingredients in the mix such as taurine, B vitamins, sugar, etc.
An average cup of brewed coffee has around
100 mg of caffeine. However, the caffeine content of coffee from retail
outlets, including different sources of the same brands, can vary appreciably,
mostly from 70 to 140 mg. And even decaffeinated coffee contains significant
amounts of caffeine. As you can see from these lists the amount of caffeine in
various beverages varies dramatically from those with a caffeine content of
several cups of brewed coffee to relatively low levels.
Up to 400 mg of caffeine per day is
considered safe for healthy adults, although an upper limit of 300 mg is
recommended for some, such as women in their child bearing years. While these
limits may seem to be high, if one looks at all the sources of caffeine,
reaching unhealthy levels is easier than most people think. For example, some of the energy
drinks, in their bid to outdo each other, have raised caffeine levels in their
products to the point where their use alone could be dangerous to health.
For a list of the levels of caffeine
in foods, drinks, OTC pills and medications go to www.erowid.org