How to read food labels

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cracks down on food manufacturers, asking them to correct food labels and claims that suggest that their products are healthier than they actually are. Manufacturers are misleading when they do not alert consumers of the significant levels of saturated fat, total fat, calories and calories from fat etc (which they are required to do). Since front-of-package call-outs tend to be mostly about marketing, check the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list to figure out how healthy a food or supplement really is. Nutritional labels are meant to be a helpful tool so here are a few educational tips:

  1. Ingredients are listed in order of weight. Carefully check ingredients for contents like partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils, since these signify the presence of trans fats. Also look for added sugars and whole grains, as the label must say "whole" and not just "wheat flour."
  2. Starting from the top of the label, look at the serving size, which unfortunately are often small. Multiply all nutritional contents accordingly if eating more than one serving.
  3. Next, focus on the number of calories per serving, and the calories from fat. The type of fat listed is more important than the amount of calories from fat.
  4. Further down, the total fat per serving and the grams of saturated, trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are listed. Amounts are rounded to the nearest whole number, meaning 0.4 gram would be listed as 0 grams and 0.8 gram would be listed as 1 gram.
    • General rule: limit saturated fat to < 5% of total calories.
    • Limit the intake of trans fats entirely. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are healthy, so no limitation is needed other than if limiting calories all together.
  5. After fat content, pay attention to the cholesterol content.
  6. Then follows carbohydrates. Unfortunately, labels do not distinguish whole grains from processed grains, so make sure to pay attention to the ingredients list.
  7. The next nutritional category to concentrate on is sugar. The label does not differentiate between natural and added sugars, so check the ingredients list to spot added sugars.
  8. Finally be aware of the total protein listed.
  9. Each nutrients percentage of the total daily intake is on the extreme right of the label. This is based upon a 2,000 calorie diet, however each persons calorie intake is different, so take that into consideration.

Other great sources for learning how to read Nutrition/Food Labels can be found at:

Ades, P, M.D. EatingWell for a Healthy Heart Cookbook: 2008.

Written by Kyle Stover
Clinical Nutritionist
Enzymes, Inc.

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