How to Read a Food Nutrition Label

If you’re like many health-conscious people, you’re concerned about the packaged foods you eat, and what they really contain. So rather than just grabbing food products off the supermarket shelves and throwing them into your shopping cart, you actually stop and read the labels. And there the problem starts. How do you make sense of the claims on the front of the package such as “Low Calorie” or “Made With Real Fruit,” and reconcile them with the list of ingredients on the back of the package, which may start with sugar (meaning that there is more of it in the package than any other ingredient), and that doesn’t contain a single reference to actual fruit?

You’re not alone in feeling confused. The claims made on food labels are often confusing, and just as often not completely truthful. Some are outright lies. The fault for this is due to agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failing to create meaningful labeling standards. Creators of foods can use phrases like “Lightly Sweetened” to describe products that contain up to 100 grams of added sugar. They can say things like “Made With Real Fruit” under photos of fruit, when none of those fruits are actually used, only tiny amounts of some other fruit juice.

So what parts of a product’s labeling are important to read?

Skip the marketing information on its front label and turn to the nutrition label on the back. Go first to the actual list of ingredients and scan it quickly. If it is full of the names of chemicals, additives, and substances you don’t recognize, put the product back on the shelf and move along. These chemicals may add flavor, texture, or color to the food, or extend its shelf life, but they aren’t actual nutrients. They’re “filler.”

Next, if the list of ingredients seems fairly benevolent, check the order in which they are listed. The order indicates how much of each is in the product, starting with the highest percentage, and moving down to the lowest percentage. As an example, the first ingredient listed in most children’s breakfast cereals is sugar (or one of sugar’s many euphemisms, such as dextrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, sorbitol, fruit juice concentrate, lactose, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, maltodextrin, or many others). Do you want hyperactive kids? Buy that cereal.

The importance of “serving size”

The next thing to check on the label is the suggested serving size. All percentages listed in the actual nutritional part of the label are based on this portion, which may not necessarily be what you think of as a single serving. For example, a bottle of flavored water may say truthfully that it contains only 50 calories per serving, but if you pay attention to the serving size, you realize that the small bottle contains 2.5 to 3 actual “servings.” Similarly, on a package of Dorito brand chips, the amount of fat and calories listed per serving doesn’t seem all that bad until you read the fine print and realize that a “serving” is only 11 chips. Do you really only eat 11 Doritos while watching the big game on TV, or do you eat the whole bag?

What does “% daily value” mean?

Having determined what the actual serving size is, move to the actual statistics on the nutrition label. They are usually expressed as the percentage in this serving size of the recommended daily amount of this substance that most people should eat per day. If the item you are looking at is important, such as the amount of fat, and it is listed as having a fairly high “% daily value,” that means that you should probably eat very little other fat that day to balance the high amounts you are getting in this product. One key item to look for is sodium, because many people – especially those who have heart problems or who suffer from high blood pressure – are sensitive to sodium, and should restrict their intake of it.

Phrases to be wary of, especially on the front of the package

There are many phrases and buzzwords that are commonly used in food packaging that are not regulated by the FDA, and thus can be used without really saying much of anything. One of the most common of these phrases is “Natural.” It has almost no legal, nutritional, or chemical meaning, so manufacturers can use it to describe almost anything.

Another term that you should treat with distrust is “Low Calorie.” Whenever you see this claim, immediately turn the package over and figure out what the actual calorie count is per serving. Often you’ll find that is anything but “low.” Other phrases that are commonly seen are “A Good Source Of Fiber” and “Made With Whole Grains.” These claims are often made about products that contain only trace elements of whole grains, and with the “fiber” provided by additives with no nutritional value.

In summary, although the nutrition labels on packaged foods are sometimes confusing, and sometimes intentionally confusing, they do contain useful information that can help us when deciding what to buy, and what to eat. We just need to learn how to sift through the disinformation to take advantage of the useful information that is actually there.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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