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Learn How to Read Nutrition Labels Like a Pro E-mail
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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 meanings according to government mandated definitions:

Key Food Nutrition Label Terms and Their Meanings

Sugar Free

Means that it has less than 0.5g per serving.

Reduced Sugar

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.

Calorie Free

Means that the product is fewer than 5 calories per serving.

Low Calorie

Is an item that contains 40 calories or less per serving.

Fat Free

Is less than 0.5g of fat per serving.

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.

Low 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 product.

Low Saturated Fat

Informs the consumer that 1g or less per serving and not more than 15 percent of the total calories are from saturated fat.

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.

Light

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.

Lean

Means less than 10 grams of fat  4 grams saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol.

Extra Lean

Means less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol

Cholesterol Free

Is any product that contains less than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2g or less saturated fat.

Low Cholesterol

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.

Sodium Free

Is less than 5mg per serving.

Low Sodium

Means the product is 140mg or less per serving.

Very Low Sodium

Is an item with 35mg or less per serving.

Reduced Or Less Sodium

Requires that the product be at least 25 percent less per serving.

High Fiber

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

Besides 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.

Consumers on 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 relatively high.

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 cholesterol" (meaning 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 some 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
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Total carbohydrate
  • Dietary fiber
  • Soluble fiber
  • Insoluble fiber
  • Sugars
  • 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)
  • Protein
  • Amino acids
  • Peptides
  • Vitamin A
  • Percent of vitamin A present as beta-carotene
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Other essential vitamins and minerals
  • 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 www.cfsan.fda.gov. The FDA added the colors to the label for illustration purposes. 

Nutriton food label

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 limitations.

Top to Bottom Review of the Food Label

Serving Size:
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.

nutritional label serving size

Calories:

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, choosing 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.

Total Fat

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. 

Saturated Fat, 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.

Unsaturated Fats

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

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

Carbohydrates are broken down into total carbohydrates (carbs), fiber, and sugars.

Total Carbohydrate

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.

Dietary Fiber

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.

Sugars

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 you can use in your carbohydrate counting. There are a number of issues to consider especially since many manufacturers use various tricks to significantly understate their 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.

Total 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)."

Sugar 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 if present.

Glycerol, 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 products.

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 low carbohydrate diets. 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.

Protein

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.

Vitamins

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 deficiency diseases. 

Minerals

Calcium and Iron are the only minerals required on labels. They are measured in percent daily values.

Ingredient List

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.

It basically 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 diet".

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

Nutrient DV %DV Goal
Total Fat 65g = 100%DV Less than
    Sat Fat 20g = 100%DV Less than
Cholesterol 300mg = 100%DV Less than
Sodium 2400mg = 100%DV Less than
Total Carbohydrate 300g = 100%DV At least
    Dietary Fiber 25g = 100%DV At least

 

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

Caffeine Content

Red Bull Energy DrinkAnother 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

 
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