Reading Food Nutrition Labels 101 and How to Decode Them

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Reading Food Nutrition Labels and Deciphering Them  reading food nutrition labels

Reading Food Nutrition Labels 101

By now, because of all your reading and research, I am sure you all have a pretty darn good idea what foods are nutritious and which ones are, well, unhealthy garbage. So the next step is reading food nutrition labels on food products when shopping. I know you have heard us mention reading labels many times, and I am hoping that has become second nature to you.

However, those labels can be confusing so I will walk you through it.

The “government” has set up strict food label regulations in order to prevent devious companies from printing, not really outright lies, but shall we say misleading claims, on food containers.

So, the first thing I want to do is give you a list of the rules for reading a nutritional food label.

8 Rules for Reading Food Nutrition Labels:

  1. Never believe the flashy claims on the front of the box.
  2. Always read the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list.
  3. Check the serving size.
  4. Check the amount of servings per package.
  5. Check the calories per serving.
  6. Check out the calories from each type of fat.
  7. Check the sodium.
  8. Check the sugar content and other hidden sugar products.


OK, now that we have that established let’s get started.

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves – Food Nutrition Labeling Is Often food nutrition labeling - Understanding the Nutrition Facts LabelDeliberately Misleading

Understanding the Nutrition Facts Label

Product ingredients are listed by quantity – from highest to lowest amount. By reading the first three ingredients you will usually know whether or not the product is healthy. For example if these three include refined grains, sugar, or hydrogenated oils put it back on the shelf.

Hint number two: If the ingredients list is longer than your arm (or two to three lines to be more specific) or consists of words you have never heard of, you can bet that the product is highly processed.

A huge help in some cases is when manufacturers add nutrition claims on their products but this is also very often a double edged sword and misleading. These labels indicate that the food has a certain amount of a specific ingredient. Therefore when your objective is to increase the amount, or choose the brand with the most of a specific nutrient, these are the magic words:

  • source (i.e. source of calcium)
  • high (i.e. high in fiber)
  • excellent source (i.e. excellent source of vitamin A)

Examples of nutrients you would like to increase would include fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C., iron and calcium.

Conversely, when you need to decrease the amount of a specific nutrient, search for:

  • free (i.e. sugar free)
  • low (i.e. low in saturated fat)
  • reduced (i.e. calorie reduced)

Examples of those you need less of would be bad fats and cholesterol, and sugar.

So, Let’s Start Reading That Food Label

This information has been provided by Joy Bauer in her wonderful book entitled “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Total Nutrition. First is serving size.

When listing the ingredients in their product they always use one serving as their base. Consequently they list the size of each serving as compared to the number of servings in the entire package. Keep in mind that their serving sizes are usually very small and most people would eat twice that amount in a serving. But take heed: If you double the serving size you must double the calories, protein grams, carbohydrate grams, fat grams, and on down the line.

Let’s Talk Calories (Groan) and FatFat Bastard - reading food nutrition fact labels

The following key words are now defined by the government and cannot be messed with.

  • Calorie-free – less than five calories per serving
  • Low-calorie – forty calories or less for most food items
  • Reduced-calorie – must have at least 25% fewer calories than the regular version of the same food.

Fat is next.

The total number of fat grams includes saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Lower down “calories from fat” converts the total fat grams into fat calories. You should try to choose foods with a big difference between the total calories and the fat calories.

Here are the government rules for fat labelling.

  • Fat-free – less than 0.5 grams of fat per servings
  • Low-fat – 3 grams of fat or less per servings
  • Reduced-fat – at least 25% less fat per serving than the original version of the food.

Saturated fat is the amount of artery-clogging fat in the product and is listed separately as it is the bad guy, contributing to heart disease and other illnesses. And the “government” says…

  • Saturated fat-free – less than 0.5 grams per servings
  • Low in saturated fat – 1 gram or less in a serving or no more than 10 percent of calories coming from saturated fat.
  • Reduced saturated fat – at least 25% less than the original version.

Cholesterol and Sodium Content

The cholesterol content of a food is measured in milligrams. The key here is to eat less than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day. When a food product contains two grams of saturated fat, these claims are allowed.

  • Cholesterol-free – less than two milligrams of cholesterol and two grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Low cholesterol – 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.

The manufacturers call it sodium, but everyone knows it is plain old salt. Limit the high sodium foods you eat, aiming for a daily intake of 2400 milligrams or less.

  • Sodium-free – less than 5 milligrams per serving
  • Low sodium – 140 milligrams or less per serving
  • Reduced sodium – at least 25% less sodium than the original version

read nutrition facts food labels - too much proteinCarbohydrates and Protein Content

Carbohydrates have their own special listings as well.

If you look at “total carbohydrates”, this shows the amount of all types of carbs, simple and complex in a single serving. The simple carbs are listed as “sugar.” So if the label says that the total carbohydrates are 13 grams and the sugars are 3 grams then you will know that the majority of carbs are coming from complex sources. Under total carbohydrates is dietary fiber which includes soluble and insoluble fiber. Foods with at least 3 grams of dietary fiber are best and you should get a total intake of 20-35 grams each day.

Protein is one of the necessary food groups where people eat far more than needed. 0.36 grams per pound of body weight is sufficient.

How and Why Too Much Protein Triggers Aging and Cancer By Dr. Joseph Mercola

Common Deceptions On Nutritional “Fact” Labels

OK, so now I am going to explain to you how to weed out the phonies. These are designed to convince you that the garbage product is healthy. So outsmart them. Your health will thank you.

Here are some of the most used claims:

  • Light
    – processed to reduce either calories or fat. Or just plain old watered down. Check this for other additives for substitutes, main one being sugar.
  • Multigrain
    – ok yes it sounds healthy but really only means that it contains more than one type of grain. You need whole grain.
  • Natural
    – these products vaguely resemble natural, only because at one point the manufacturer worked with a natural source like apples or rice. This one is very misleading and blatant about it.
  • Organic
    – maybe but not necessarily healthy. Organic sugar is still sugar.
  • No added sugar
    – but how about the added sugar substitutes?
  • Low fat
    – this usually means simply that the fat has been reduced by adding more sugar.
  • Fortified or enriched
    – ok so some nutrients have been added, like vitamin D to milk.
  • Gluten-free
    – this does not mean healthy. They might not contain wheat, rye, spelt, or barley but are highly processed and pumped full of fats and sugar.
  • Zero trans fat
    – this is a good one. Sounds perfect. But all it means is that they make the serving size so miniscule that the product still contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat but in a much smaller portion.

So now you are armed and ready for these culprits. Go get ‘em.

But Hold On!

I have one more lesson for you.

OK, two.

The first is products labelled non GMO or GMO with a slash through it.

For those of you not familiar with this term here is a simple explanation:

By altering a plant or animal’s genetic code, scientists are able to manipulate speed of growth and nutritional content. This blue banana - how to read food nutrition labels causes two major concerns. Can the new genes or proteins produce toxins? Can they trigger an allergic reaction in people eating the food?

The second is Free Range versus Organic.

Organic is a labelling term which states that the poultry and/or meat has been fed certified organic food since birth. These are grain and soybeans grown in soil that has been free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and no drugs or antibiotics can be used.

To be labelled free range, the poultry must have free access to the outdoors and not be kept in a pen. This can be misleading as nothing is mentioned as to how large the pen is or how clean.

That’s a Wrap

And so ends this lesson on reading food nutrition labels without being duped. If you don’t know how to decode food labels, you are playing Russian roulette with your health.

I realize that it has not been the most scintillating or heart pounding article, but for those of you just starting down the road towards good health it is your walking stick to guide you along the way.

Happy trails!

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6 thoughts on “Reading Food Nutrition Labels 101 and How to Decode Them”

  1. Hey, Lily!

    You are so welcome (Larke says you’re welcome, too!). And thank you–I wasn’t aware that there was much of such an effort. That’s good to hear, despite those efforts being ultimately rather futile. It shows you that people aren’t just complacently putting up with it all!

  2. I’ve been aware that labels on food are a minefield for the inexperienced. Most countries are trying to get manufacturers to stop being clever with the ingredients and let people eat more naturally but it’s not been in their best interests. Thankfully your article covers the facts and it has given me some tools to know how much fat, sugar and processed grains are in the products that I like to buy.

    Thanks for your help.

  3. I always tell my clients to read what is on the packaging before they buy a certain product. It is absolutely important. You never know if the product contains something you are allergic to so you need to be aware of that. I will be sure to share this article with friends and family. 

  4. Finally a article about a topic I really like. I been reading labels for a few years know so I know the yes and nos when it comes to finding foods. I have actually talked about this with my nail technician and we agree most people don’t know how to eat right . Even though a lot think they might be. Yes I don’t always eat healthy but I don’t think everyone does. I love this article and it’s helpful . Really can get someone’s attention thank you. 

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