Nutrition Labels Exposed!

Image of Nutrition Label

Do you read nutrition labels when shopping for groceries? If not, START NOW! Keep reading to understand how to interpret those confusing and often misleading labels.

Although ingredient lists on food products are supposed to inform us, the consumers, about what's contained in the product, this is sometimes not the case. This article is to help you understand nutrition labels and explain wny you need to pay close attention!

Keep in mind that you MUST IGNORE the hype on the front of the packaging, and IGNORE how attractive the packaging may be! It's called marketing, where the manufacturers may stretch the truth trying to get your attention so you will buy their product.

In this article I will try to touch upon the most common nutrition label information. It would be impossible for me to explain everything about every type of label in a one-page article.

If you would like more in-depth information (especially if you have special health concerns such as diabetes or certain food allergies) you should consider purchasing a copy of the label-decoding book, Read It Before You Eat Iticon. The author is Bonnie Taub-Dix.

The book is very detailed and provides excellent information to help you make healthy food choices, without pushing any particular brands. She simply wants to help people make the best choices by reading the nutrition labels.

Serving Size and Servings per Container

On the nutrition labels, serving size is a standard measure of food. Servings per container represents the number of servings in the package. Now....this can be tricky.

Often what you consider a serving and what the manufacturer labels as a serving can be quite different. For I'm writing this I have an 11 ounce bag of tortilla chips on my desk. The serving size is one ounce (about 9 chips). There are 11 servings per container. There are 6 grams of fat per serving!

Think about it. Do you think you will eat more than 9 chips? Honestly....what if you have a bowl of fresh, healthy salsa to go with them? How many are you going to eat then? Those fat grams add up really fast!

Recently my son was drinking a beverage called Mountain Dew Game Fuel (much to my chagrin). He is a teenager so, unfortunately he doesn't always make the healthy drink choices I would prefer he make.

I noticed he was unusually restless, talking non-stop about various subjects, and being unusually argumentative. I finally asked him if he had been drinking soda and he "proudly" showed me the empty drink bottle.

Immediately I looked at the nutrition label to help him understand what he had just put in his body. The 20 ounce container totaled 2.5 servings. 31 grams of sugar per serving! Not to mention, the artificial colorings, preservatives, and 48 mg of caffeine PER SERVING.

Now if one teaspoon of sugar is close to four grams, then my son had just consumed almost 20 teaspoons of sugar! I felt as though he had just consumed a bottle of poison. Many children and teenagers consume multiple bottles of soda daily. Imagine what this is doing to their young bodies.

So you see, it is extremely important to read labels and check serving size first.

Total Calories and Total Fats

Next on the nutrition label comes the calories. Calories are energy. If you consume more total calories than your body actually needs for energy, you gain weight. If you consume less calories than your body needs for energy, you lose weight.

You will also usually see a line for calories from fat. A good guideline to follow is that no more than thirty percent of your daily calories should come from fat. Paying attention to the total fat in a food is important because fat is the most concentrated source of calories.

There are 9 calories per gram of fat. We all know eating too much fat, especially the bad fats, leads to weight gain, or at least makes it difficult to lose weight.

There are four types of fats that may be listed on a nutrition label:

  • Saturated Fats. These fats are mainly from animal sources, such as meat and dairy products, and even coconut oil.
  • Trans Fats. Also known as, hydrogenated oils, these fats are often found in vegetable shortening, margarine, cookies, crackers, and other prepackaged or processed foods.
  • Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated Fats. These are more healthful fats which must be listed if a nutrition claim is made about them on the package. They come from plant sources and are usually liquid at room temperature.


This line tells you how many milligrams of cholesterol is in each serving and what percentage it is of the recommended daily value. On the nutrition labels, Daily Values are typically based on a 2000 calorie diet.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the American Heart Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Nutrition Facts" label recommend that Americans consume less than 300 mg of cholesterol daily.

However, you should eat less than 200 mg of cholesterol daily if you have heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute goes further, urging you to reduce your daily cholesterol intake to 200 mg if your blood cholesterol level remains above 200 mg/dL after you eat fewer than 300 mg of cholesterol daily for 16 weeks.

Sodium ( Salt)

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day — or 1,500 mg if you're age 51 or older, or if you are black, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

Consider that just one teaspoon of table salt has 2,325 mg of sodium. Many processed and prepared foods already contain lots of sodium — and it's these foods that contribute the most sodium to your diet.

Pay close attention to the sodium content on the nutrition label, and if you aren't sure how much sodium your diet should include, talk to your doctor.


Listing potassium on nutrition labels is optional for food manufacturers. Dialysis patients be aware that just because potassium is not listed on the nutrition label, does not mean the food is potassium free.

Potassium is plentiful in milk, meats, fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts. If these ingredients are in the food, it contains potassium.

Like sodium, potassium helps to regulate the body's water balance, transmit nerve impulses, and trigger muscle contractions. Unlike sodium, however, it is not implicated in hypertension, in fact, it may reduce blood pressure.

Total Carbohydrate

Total carbohydrate is the title under which carbohydrate sources are listed. Dietary fiber and sugars, the two items required to be listed, will be found under total carbohydrate.

Manufacturers may voluntarily list other sources, such as insoluble or soluble fiber, other carbohydrate, or sugar alcohols.

Keep in mind when counting carbohydrate that total carbohydrate is not measured specifically. It is calculated by difference. After the product is analyzed, the weight of the other food elements is subtracted and what remains is total carbohydrate.

Other Carbohydrate: This source of carbohydrate, from several types of starches, is what's left after subtracting sugars, sugar alcohols, and fiber. It is not often listed, but you may sometimes see it on cereal labels.

Dietary Fiber: Dietary fiber is typically from plant foods and cannot be digested by the enzymes in the small intestines. There are two types of dietary fiber....

  1. Insoluble fiber: This fiber is usually found in whole grain cereals and breads, and is not digestible.
  2. Soluble fiber: This fiber is usually found in beans, peas, oats, and barley. It is digestible but remains gummy and thick, and helps you to feel full.

Sugars: Sugars includes all naturally occurring sugars, (such as the sugars in fruit and milk) as well as "added" sugars (including high fructose corn syrup). Since all sugars are not created equal, some health advocates (including the American Diabetes Association) are encouraging the FDA to require listing "added sugars" separately, or as the only sugars accounted for under "sugars" on nutrition labels.

Occasionally you may see a listing for Sugar Alcohols (or Polyols). They are in sugar-free foods such as candy, cookies, ice cream and chewing gum. They are used alone or may be combined with sugar substitutes to sweeten and provide bulk.

Common Polyols are sorbitol, erythritol, and mannitol. Polyols can cause diarrhea in some people, especially children. Foods with large amounts must state on the package: "Excess consumption may have a laxative effect."


Nutrition labels always list protein.

Many foods will contain some protein. Meat, fish, poultry, and dairy foods are highest.

If you are eating a variety of foods with enough calories to maintain your weight, you should be getting an adequate amount in your diet.

Nutrient Content on Nutrition Labels

This section list nutrient content in Percent Daily Values. It estimates nutrient content per 2000-2500 calorie diet.

Nutrition Label Ingredient List

Image of ingredient label

This is another area where you need to pay close attention. There is much to consider when reading the ingredient list on a nutrition label.

Manufacturers often use the ingredient list to convince consumers that the product is healthier than it really is.The ingredients are listed in order of their proportion in the food with the most common ingredients listed first.

In order to shift sugars farther down the list, a manufacturer may use a combination of sweeteners such as, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, brown sugar, dextrose and other sugars to make sure none of them are present in large enough quantities to attain a top position in the ingredient list.

Another thing to watch out for is miniscule amounts of great sounding ingredients. This is especially common in personal care products and shampoos.

In foods, companies pad the list with healthy sounding berries, herbs, and super foods that may only be present in extremely small amounts. Having a super-healthy ingredient appear at the end of an ingredient list is practically meaningless.

Something else to watch out for is innocent names for dangerous ingredients. Sodium Nitrite sounds harmless enough, but is known to cause brain tumors and various cancers. The Center for Science in the Public Interest considers it unsafe, and even encourages pregnant women to avoid consumption of foods containing this additive.

Similarly, yeast extract sounds like a perfectly safe ingredient, right? Are you, or someone you know, allergic to monosodium glutamate (MSG)? Listing it as yeast extract avoids having to include MSG on the list.

Image of ingredient label

Here's one I only read about recently....Carmine. Sounds harmless enough. It's a food coloring (also used in cosmetics) that is sometimes used in juices or yogurts to make them red.

It's made from the smashed bodies of the Cochineal and Polished Cochineal Beetle!

Also...don't be fooled by the name of the product. Sometimes the name of a product has nothing to do with what's in the product. For instance, make sure when you are eating "Guacamole Dip" that the dip actually has avocados in it.

Read that nutrition label. It may be made with hydrogenated oil and artificial green coloring!

Tips For Reading Ingredient Labels

Here are a few more tips for successfully reading ingredient lists:

  1. Remember that ingredients are listed in order of their proportion in the product. This means the first three ingredients matter most. The top three or four ingredients are primarily what you are eating.
  2. If the ingredient list contains long, chemical sounding words that are difficult to pronounce....don't eat it! It may very likely contain toxic chemicals. Stick with ingredients you know.
  3. Don't be fooled by healthy, exotic sounding herbs or other ingredients that appear very far down the list. Most likely it's a marketing gimmick.
  4. Look for words like "sprouted" or "raw" to indicate a higher quality, natural food. Sprouted grains and seeds are healthier than non-sprouted, and raw ingredients are generally healthier than processed or cooked. Whole grains are healthier than "enriched" grains.
  5. Watch for the word "wheat" when it comes to flour. All flour derived from wheat can be called "wheat flour," even if it is processed, bleached, and stripped of nutrition. Only "whole grain wheat flour" is a healthful form of wheat flour.
  6. "Brown" products can also be deceiving. Brown sugar is white sugar with coloring and flavor added. Brown eggs are no different than white, except for the color of their shells. Brown bread may be no healthier than white breads, unless it's made with whole grains.
  7. Watch out for those small serving sizes. Manufacturers often do this to reduce the number of calories, grams of sugar, or grams of fat believed to be in the food by the consumer.
  8. Just because the product label says there is no trans fat doesn't really mean there are none! Look at that ingredient label.

    If you see hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredient list, it contains trans fats! They have just lowered the serving size so there is only .5 gm per serving. This gives them the okay by the FDA to say "0 trans fats".

Watch Out For These Statements!

Remember the beginning of this article when I told you about MARKETING? Get familiar with these statements and what they mean to you so you're not misled by all the "HYPE"!

  • Sugar Free means that the product contains less than .5 gm per serving.
  • Reduced Sugar means that the product has at least 25% less than the average brand per serving.
  • No Sugar Added means that no sugar was added during processing or packaging. This does not mean that the product contains no sugar.
  • Calorie Free means that the product has less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Low Calorie means that the product has less than 40 calories per serving.
  • Fat Free means the product contains less than .5 gm of fat per serving.
  • Low Fat means that the food contains 3 gm or less of fat per serving.
  • Cholesterol Free means that the product contains less than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2 gm or less of saturated fat.
  • Low Cholesterol refers to any product that has less than 20 mg or less per serving.
  • Sodium Free means that it contains less than 5 mg per serving.
  • Low Sodium means the item has 140 mg or less per serving.
  • Very Low Sodium means that it contains 35 mg or less per serving.
  • High Fiber means the product contains 5 g or more per serving.
  • Good Source Of Fiber means it contains 2.5 to 4.9 g per serving.

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