Understand 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.

The nutrition facts panel typically consists of the following components:

  1. serving size information,
  2. calorie information,
  3. percent daily value (based on a 2000-calorie diet),
  4. nutrient information, and
  5. a footnote of recommended daily values for standard 2000- and 2500-calorie diets.

Sounds pretty straight forward doesn’t it? Unfortunately it isn’t. If you’re confused by what’s listed in food labels, especially the more complicated ones, you’re not alone.1,2

Studies have shown that with some help in deciphering them the Nutrition Facts label can be an effective educational tool to increase nutrition knowledge.3

In fact I’ve found that most people don’t understand enough about what’s on food labels to make an informed choice of what’s best for them.

The reason is two-fold. First of all most people don’t fully understand the lingo used on the labels, and secondly label information pertaining to newer “low-carb” products are not well regulated by the FDA and are more challenging to understand.

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 carbs, and 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.

An Overview of What to Look For

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 http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/foodlab.html. The FDA added the colors to the label for illustration purposes.

As you can see 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.

From Top to Bottom – What’s On the Label

First of all we’ll cover the information you’ll find on the food label. After that we’ll look into how to read into what’s not on the 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.

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.

Keep in mind when reading the rest of the label that:

  • 1 gram of fat contains about 9 calories
  • 1 gram of protein contains about 4 calories
  • 1 gram of carbohydrate contains about 4 calories

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.

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.

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. However, this consensus is for ordinary people and not those who follow my phase shift diets and transform their bodies from being dependant on carbs to being dependant on fats, including body fat, as their primary fuel.

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, which is found in greater amounts in butter, cheese, whole milk, whole milk products, meat and poultry, has in fact not shown to raise the incidence of heart disease. For more info on saturated fat and red meat see the articles Red Meat Controversy and The Effect of Dietary Fat on Testosterone.

Trans fats are used by food processors to
increase the shelf life of processed food. Foods high in trans-fat include stick margarine, vegetable shortening, cookies, crackers, snack foods, fried foods and other processed foods. Since consumer awareness about trans fats has recently increased many food manufacturers are trying to decrease or eliminate trans fats from their products.

As of January 2006 food manufacturers in the US must list trans fat on all their products (see http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/transfat.html). 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 and 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, vegetables, fruits, sweets and milk. Carbohydrate counting is used in diabetes meal planning.

Total carbohydrates combines all the carbs 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 Carbohydrate 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 carb 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 carbs you need to consider most of the total carbs in a product to arrive at the number you can use in your carb counting. There are a number of issues to consider especially since many manufacturers use various tricks to significantly understate their products carbohydrate content. For more information see the section below on Disguised Carbohydrates.

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. In my view this is a serious mistake as amino acids and peptides are the breakdown products of whole protein and as such should be considered in the total protein count.

Vitamins and Minerals

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.

Calcium and Iron are the only minerals required on labels. As in the two vitamins 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.

Label Information for Avoiding Allergies

The FDA, as of January, 2006, requires food manufacturers to list common food allergens on food labels in simple terms that adults and older children can understand. Common allergens, such as milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts, although listed in the ingredients list, it must also be clearly state on food labels (after or adjacent to the list of ingredients) whether the products contain these allergens.

References

  • 1Cowburn G, Stockley L. Consumer understanding and use of nutrition labelling: a systematic review. Public Health Nutr. 2005 Feb;8(1):21-8.
  • 2Rothman RL, Housam R, Weiss H, Davis D, Gregory R, Gebretsadik T, Shintani A, Elasy TA. Patient understanding of food labels: the role of literacy and numeracy. Am J Prev Med. 2006 Nov;31(5):391-8.
  • 3Hawthorne KM, Moreland K, Griffin IJ, Abrams SA. An educational program enhances food label understanding of young adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc. 2006 Jun;106(6):913-6.