How to Understand Food Labels

Nutritional facts on food packaging can be hard to decipher, so we have provided some pointers

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

We see nutrition labels every day on nearly everything we eat. But what good are they if we don’t understand what we’re actually eating? Here are some ways to decode the label and some of the ingredients we often see.

Let's Start at the Beginning: Serving Size

People often overlook or don’t understand a food’s serving size. It’s important to pay attention to portion size to make sure you’re not eating too much (which could lead to weight gain) or too little (not getting the full nutritional value).

Some foods may claim to be 100 calories, but, really, their serving sizes are very small. If food scales or measuring cups are not at your disposal, use your hand to help gauge how much you should be eating. The size of an adult fist is about a cup (a serving of dry cereal), your thumb is the size of a tablespoon (half a serving of peanut butter), and your pointer finger is about 1.5 ounces (a serving of cheese).

Calories Are Not the Enemy!

Dieters often give calories a bad rap, but calories serve a big purpose: giving us energy to move and live!

Using the serving sizes makes it easier to track your daily calorie intake. While conventional knowledge tells us that a daily diet should include 2,000 calories, that number is an average of the needs for many different body types. Age, gender and activity level all play a role in our daily caloric needs, so ask a doctor if you are looking for a specific number.

Generally, women between ages 31 and 50 who exercise less than half an hour on most days should be eating around 1,800 calories a day. It’s 2,200 for men, and those older than 51 should reduce their intake by 200 calories, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Knowing Your Nutrients

A big portion of the the nutrition label is filled with long, bolded names, numbers and percentages. But what do they mean?

The first block of bolded names are nutrients Americans eat regularly or too much, such as cholesterol, fat and sodium. Since eating too much saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and cholesterol are associated with certain diseases and conditions, the FDA recommends limiting consumption of these nutrients.

Below these are the vitamins and minerals you should make sure you’re getting enough of, such as vitamin A and calcium.

The percentages on the right are the percent daily value. This indicates how much of your daily nutritional needs are met for that particular nutrient if you eat the serving size. For example, if the daily value of vitamin A is 10 percent, you still need 90 percent to satisfy your daily need. These percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, so these values may change, depending on your dietary needs.

Mind the Footnote

Although daily value recommendations may vary with the size of your diet, some may not. No matter your personal caloric intake, the recommendations for cholesterol and sodium stay the same. This is because public health officials believe that even those who require more calories than the recommended average should be eating less than the maximum recommendation of 300 milligrams of cholesterol and 240 milligrams of sodium daily.

The Truth Behind the Label

Advertisers are always trying to catch your attention, and sometimes they resort to flashy claims about the product. The government stepped in to help guide what these claims really mean.

Calorie-free foods, for example, have fewer than 5 calories in a serving. Fat-free foods contain fewer than 0.5 grams of fat in a serving. Foods with fewer than 40 calories (or 120 for a main dish like chicken breasts) are low-calorie, and foods with fewer than 3 grams of fat are low-fat. Since many consider saturated fat unhealthy, it gets listed by itself; foods can only be named low in saturated fat if they have a gram or less per serving. Only foods that have 25 percent less fat or calories than their normal versions can be labeled reduced-calorie or fat. Foods low in fat or calories still may contain a lot of sugar, so mind all your daily values!

Speaking the Language of Ingredients

Sometimes, looking at the list of ingredients is like reading another language.

Ingredients that end in “ol” or “ose” are typically names for types of sugar, such as sorbitol or glucose; malts, nectars and syrups may also refer to sugar, like high fructose corn syrup or barley malt.

Salts can also be listed as sodium benzoate, disodium/monosodium glutamate (you may have heard of MSG) or sodium nitrate. Be sure to look out for salt — its taste isn’t always as prominent as we think. The American Heart Association lists the “Salty Six” as bread, cold cuts, pizza, poultry, soup and sandwiches.

Something else to watch out for is partially hydrogenated oil, which is another name for trans fats.

The ingredients on food packaging are listed in order of their prominence in the food — the more it’s in there, the closer to the top of the list it goes. In many cases, the shorter the ingredient list, the better.

Cooking Chemistry 101

What are some other long names we see regularly on our food labels? Three main types of preservatives are used in food:

  • Antimicrobials: to prevent organisms like fungi and bacteria from growing. Look for: sodium benzoate (a type of salt also referred to as antimol, sobenate, benzoate sodium or benzoic acid), calcium propionate (also known as propanoic acid and calcium salt), calcium sorbate (a salt from the fat sorbic acid) and potassium sorbate (also a salt of sorbic acid).
  • Antioxidants: to help food last longer by preserving fat. Look for: sodium erythorbate (the chemical version of ascorbic acid; one rumor says it’s made from earthworms, which is false), sodium nitrate, BHA and BHT.
  • Acids: to preserve food colors, textures and flavors. Look for: ascorbic acid (vitamin C), citric acid, EDTA (an amino acid) and tocopherols (vitamin E).

Color Me Wonderful

Without food coloring, how would we know our favorite flavors of candy? Our candy could not be bright blue without a little help. Here’s how food coloring may appear on your label.

Often, we see “FD&C” followed by a color and a number. FD&C stands for the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which passed in 1938 and covers rules regarding food, cosmetics, drugs and pesticides, among others. For foods, it establishes standards for quality, quantity and labels. Food dyes can be classified as just the color, or as “lakes” or “mixtures,” which indicate certain mixtures of colors or chemicals. Food dyes became regulated more strictly in the 1960s after children became sick from eating an orange dye used in candy.

Other food dye or color you may see includes beta-carotene, which is what makes plants like carrots or squash naturally orange, but it can also be man-made to put in processed foods. Another added dye is carmine or cochineal extract, which is red food coloring made from crushed beetles.

It's a Little Gummy

You may see different “gums” in your ingredients like “xanthan gum” or “gum arabic.” These ingredients usually come from plants. They are often used to enhance the textures of reduced-fat products or may be used to thicken food. Gelatin is used similarly, but is made from animal byproducts rather than plants. Pectin serves the same purpose, but is made from fiber found in fruit. Some ingredients are used to keep foods blended and smooth, such as in salad dressings. A very popular ingredient for this is lecithin — usually soy lecithin. These are fats derived from the source.

It's Not All Bad

Not all additives to food are bad for us. Sometimes, manufacturers will add nutrients that are lost in processing. Ascorbic acid, also used as a preservative, is a form of vitamin C. Similarly, beta-carotene may be added as food coloring, or it may be added because the body converts it to vitamin A. Thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin (or niacinamide) are vitamins B1, B2 and B3, respectively. These added nutrients can be found in a variety of foods; you may see them in breads, rice or cereals, fruit juices, milk and salt, among others.


Review Date: 
October 10, 2014
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Last Updated:
December 30, 2014