How to read nutrition labels like a pro.

Learn How to Read Nutrition Labels Like a Pro – Step by Step Guide

Most people think that they know exactly what a nutrition label is telling them. You will be surprised at how much these labels are designed to manipulate. Stop being manipulated and learn how to read nutrition labels like a pro.

Nutrition labeling is mandatory for packaged food in the United States and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, what is on these labels can be challenging to understand for many of us. Additionally, many companies deliberately mislead consumers, and it is legal. After you read this article, you will have a minimal chance of being deceived and know how to read nutrition labels.

Labeling Terms & Their Meanings

First, to understand food labels entirely, you must be familiar with and understand key terms used on food labels. Here are the meanings of standard phrases according to government-mandated definitions:

How to Read Nutrition Labels – Key Food Terms and Their Meanings

You must know how to read nutrition labels key terms in order to not be deceived. The following terms are not only used to describe the products’ ingredients but also market the products as healthy.

Sugar-Free

Only means there are < .5 grams of sugar per serving.  Be careful if the serving is less than a gram. It is a common misconception that packets of NutraSweet, Splenda or Stevia have 0 calories. But the primary ingredient is dextrose, which is still sugar and has four calories per gram.  As such these packets likely contain two calories of pure refined sugar. But, per FDA regulations they are Sugar-Free.

Reduced Sugar

Indicates that the product has been subjected to a process to reduce at least 25% of the sugar per serving.

No Sugar Added

Products that have no sugar added during processing or packing can use this label. Be sure that this doesn’t mean that the products might already contain natural sugar. Some common examples include dehydrated fruit and juice.

Calorie Free

Means that the product is fewer than 5 calories per serving. Again, this is how calorie-free sugar packets can get away with being labeled as calorie-free. Technically, one gram of pure sugar could be marked calorie-free since it is only four calories.

Low Calorie

Can be on any item that contains 40 calories or fewer per serving.

Fat-Free

A product that has fewer than 0.5 grams of fat per serving can use fat-free.

Saturated Fat-Free

Tells you that the serving size contains less than 0.5 grams fat, and the level of trans fatty acids is no more than 1% of the total fat.

Low Fat

These items have 3 grams or less of fat per serving and if the serving is size is 30g or less, or 2 tablespoons or less per 50g of the product.

Low Saturated Fat

Informs the consumer that 1grams or less per serving is saturated fat, and not more than 15 percent of the total calories are from saturated fat.

Reduced Or Less Fat

This food has undergone a process to reduce the fat by at least 25% per serving than the original food product. Begs the question “what did the manufacturer do to it to remove the fat?” Again this product has been somehow processed to remove some of the saturated fat. Is at least 25 percent less per serving.

Light

Product with 50% less fat than the same regular product or one third fewer calories or 50% less sodium are labeled light.

Lean

The lean label implies the product has less than 10 grams of fat, 4 grams saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol.

Extra Lean

Denotes less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams saturated fat and fewer than 95 mg of cholesterol.

Cholesterol Free

A product that contains less than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2 grams or fewer of saturated fat.

Low Cholesterol

Refers to an item that is 20mg or less and 2 grams or fewer of saturated fat per serving additionally, if the serving is 30g or less or 2 tablespoons or less, per 50 grams of the product.

Reduced Or Less Cholesterol

Is used on products that have at least 25% less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.

Sodium Free

These products have less than 5mg of sodium per serving.

Low Sodium

Means the product has 140mg or less per serving.

Very Low Sodium

Has only 35mg or less sodium per serving.

Reduced Or Less Sodium

Claims that the product has at least 25 percent less sodium per serving.

High Fiber

High fiber product contains 5 grams of fiber or more per serving. The product must also meet criteria for low fat to use this claim, or the level of total fat must be shown alongside the high fiber claim.

Good Source of Fiber

This claim refers to products with 2.5 grams to 4.9 grams per serving.

More Added Fiber

Products must contain at least 2.5 grams more per serving than the original food.

Label Nutrition Claims

Besides understanding the food label, you must understand the above terms because many food manufacturers make several health claims using these tricky terms. We call these “tricky” because studies show consumers often misunderstand the terms or are confused by them. Subsequently, manufacturers use your confusion to their advantage when marketing you their products.

How to Read Nutrition Labels with “Reduced” or “Less”

If you are on a special diet because of an allergy or other special health conditions, you are probably very aware of the related labels. Many allergies are deadly, such a peanut allergy, and failure to understand a warning could put your life at risk. A few less lethal examples are food labeled as “reduced or less.” For food to be “less or reduced,” it has to be at least 25% lower than the original food. Although a label may say that the food is reduced-sodium or reduced-fat, that only means that the amount of fat or sodium is 25% less than the original product. Unfortunately, if the original product was high in sodium or fat, the reduced product will reduce but still relatively high in fat or sodium.

Low-Fat Can Cover Up High Sugar

You have probably seen a lot of cookies with low fat or reduced-fat label. Labeling sugary foods as low fat is a pretty common marketing trick. Of course, the cookies are low fat, and this label makes us feel good about eating high sugar content. You have to convince yourself that even if a food is labeled low fat, the food may not necessarily be nutritious. Similarly, food companies can also claim “no cholesterol” if there is no animal fat used in making the product. Although, this doesn’t necessarily mean the product is low in fat.

How to Read Nutrition Labels – The Nutrition Facts Panel

The nutrition facts panel typically consists of the following information:

  • Serving size and number of total servings
  • Calorie information
  • Percent daily value (DV) typically based on a 2000-calorie diet unless marketed to kids or for babies.
  • Nutrient information, and possibly a footnote of recommended DV for standard 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets

Unfortunately, even though the nutrition panel appears simple, many consumers do not know how to read it and to understand what the information on it means. Fortunately, studies have shown that with a little help in deciphering the Nutrition Facts label can be a useful tool in understanding nutrition. Most people think they understand what’s important on the nutrition labels. For example, you might think the number of calories is what’s important. Or maybe even the amount of carbohydrate, fat, and protein in the food or supplement is your concern. But if that is you, you could be misinformed because it’s just not that easy to understand and use without some guidance.

Your ability to read and evaluate food labels is not just a matter of choosing to eat healthily. For those of us trying to gain muscle mass or improve body composition selecting the best mix of foods can be critical to our success. Additionally, for somebody trying to manage a chronic disease such as a heart ailment or diabetes, understanding nutritional information can be life-saving.

What Information a Nutritional Panel Must Contain

Manufacturers are required to provide specific information under the label’s “Nutrition Facts.” The mandatory (underlined) and other components that could be listed, and the order in which they should (and in some cases must) appear are:

Calorie Breakdown

  • Total calories
  • Calories from fats
  • Calories from saturated fats

Fat Breakdown

  • Total fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Trans fat
  • Polyunsaturated fat
  • Monounsaturated fat
  • Cholesterol

Salts

  • Sodium

Carbohydrate Breakdown

  • Total carbohydrate
  • Dietary fiber
  • Soluble fiber
  • Insoluble fiber
  • Sugars
  • Sugar alcohols (for example, the sugar substitutes xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol)
  • Other carbohydrates (the difference between total carbohydrate and the sum of dietary fiber, sugars, and sugar alcohol if declared)

Protein Breakdown

  • Protein
  • Amino acids
  • Peptides

Vitamins and Minerals

  • Vitamin A
  • Percent of vitamin A present as beta-carotene
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Other essential vitamins and minerals

And caffeine content (especially in various commercial drinks such as sodas and energy drinks) 

What You Should Look For on How to Read Nutrition Labels

Knowing what you are looking for is the first step in understanding nutrition facts labels. The Nutrition Facts Label gives you a lot of information. The key is for you to know how to use this information to make the food choices that are right for you.

An excellent resource for required information on food packaging is the FDA website. The illustration below is a sample label for macaroni and cheese from www.cfsan.fda.gov. The FDA added the colors to the label for illustration purposes.

Nutriton food label

This label is provided to give you specific information on what’s in each food product. Once you understand this information, you can use it to make healthy eating choices, and achieve your goals. If you noticed the nutrients on a label are ordered from what we should be limited to what you should try to get enough of. For example, fat, cholesterol, and sodium are always listed first, and dietary fiber and vitamins are listed last. However, while this information is useful, it does have limitations.

How to Read Nutrition Labels From Top to Bottom

Serving Size

This is one of the essential pieces of information. Because all of the following information is based on the serving size. The first thing you should always do is look at the serving size and use that number to understand the rest of the label. So when you’re looking at the Nutrition Facts label of a food product, start reading at the top of the label with the product’s recommended serving size and number of servings per package.

Next compare the serving size to how much you intend to eat. For example, serving size maybe one cup, but you may always eat two cups. In this case, you’re eating twice the recomended serving, and you need to double the calories and other nutrient numbers, to include the daily value precentages.

Calories

Next thing you’ll find down the label is the total calories and calories from fat. Total calories include the calories from fat – and carbohydrates, and proteins are the number of calories per recommended serving.

Fat Calories

Calories from fat are the total calories in one serving that come only from fat. There has been an emphasis in the last few decades on the health effects of lowering fat in our diet. For that reason, manufacturers must list calories from fat separately. By putting calories from fat on the label, it allows us to monitor the amount of fat in our diets easily. The FDA recommendation is that 30% of daily calories should come from fat. The 30% of a 2,000 calorie diet translates to 600 calories should come from fat.

Change In The Way You Think About Nutrition

Recently there has been a surge of people eating Paleo and Keto diets. Many of these people are dieting to lose weight, but others are eating this way as a lifestyle choice. These diets have also started to change the common perception of fat. Fat is no longer all bad, and now more people understand that there are good fats and bad fats. If you are on a Keto diet, then the calories from fat may be precisely what you look at first. Although, from the calorie section alone, we don’t know if the fat is good fat or bad fat. We must keep reading down the label for this information.

How to Read Nutrition Labels For Calories From Carbs and Protein

By subtracting the fat calories from total calories, you get the calories from protein and carbs. But to get precisely the calories from protein or carbs, you must do some multiplications. You multiply grams of carb by four to get calories from carbs, and you can do the same with protein.

Calories Per Gram of Macros
  • 0ne gram of fat contains about nine calories.
  • One gram of protein or carbohydrates contains about 4 calories.

Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium

Next down the label is the information on nutrients that the FDA and health.gov recommends you 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.

Saturated Fat, Trans Fat and Cholesterol

Saturated fat and trans fat are usually considered bad fats because of their ability to raise your cholesterol levels, as can dietary cholesterol. Raising your cholesterol is deemed to be harmful since it has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease. Saturated fat is high in butter, cheese, whole milk, whole milk products, meat, and poultry.

Trans Fat

Trans fats are used in food processing to increase the shelf life of food. Subsequently, foods high in trans fats include margarine, vegetable shortening, cookies, crackers, snack foods, fried foods, and other processed foods. Because consumer awareness about trans fat has increased, food manufacturers are trying to decrease or eliminate trans fat from their products.

Since 2006, food manufacturers in the US list trans fat on all their products. 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.” Hydrogenated oils are a good indicator that trans-fats are in the product.

Trans Fats in Food We Consider Healthy

Many dietary supplements such as protein, sports, energy or nutrition bars, and even meal replacements may contain trans fat. Specifically, trans fats and saturated fats increase the shelf life of these products. Although, the FDA does require trans fats to be listed on the label if there are more than 0.5 grams per serving.

Cholesterol Helps You Build and Maintain Muscle

While cholesterol is necessary for your endogenous production of many substances in your body, having too much cholesterol can be a problem. But you need cholesterol to make vitamin d and some hormones such as testosterone. As such if you are trying to build muscle, you need some cholesterol in your diet.

Unsaturated Fats

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are not listed on most label. This is a result of the FDA not requiring them to be explicitly listed. However, you can get an estimate of how much total unsaturated fats are in your food by subtracting the trans and saturated fats from the total fat.

Sodium

Too much sodium can contribute to fluid retention and high blood pressure. Sodium is mostly from salt added for either flavor or preservation. You need to know how much sodium is in your food, especially if you are trying not to retain water. Bodybuilders need to lower their sodium intake before a competition.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are subdivided into total carbohydrates (carbs), fiber, and sugars.

Total Carbohydrate

get calories of carbs by multiplying grams by four. Carbs are primarily found in starches, fruits, vegetables, milk, and sweets. Many people count carbs for diabetes meal planning and low carb diets such as the ketogenic diet. The total carbohydrates combine all the carbs in food including fiber, sugars, starches, sugar alcohols, and glycerin.

Dietary Fiber

This is the amount of indigestible or partially digestible fiber in the food. Bulk fiber is usually from plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, oats, nuts, and seeds. 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 “high fiber” foods. Many diets where you count carbs allow you to subtract the dietary fiber since you can’t digest it.

Sugars

The most easily used source of fuel for your body, and the easiest for your body to convert to fat is sugar. Sugar is listed separately and contributes to the total carbohydrates content measured in grams. Some manufacturers will list added sugar separately as well as sugar, which would be considered natural sugar.

You can see which sugars were added by looking at the ingredients list. Some examples of added sugar are glucose, fructose, sugar, dextrose, maltose, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, turbinado, maple syrup, molasses, barley, and malt. Other ingredients should be treated like sugar and counted as carbohydrates if you are on a low carbohydrates diet. These ingredients are sugar alcohols such as maltitol, xylitol, and sorbitol, and glycerin. You should avoid these sugars, along with trans fats if you are trying to improve your health and physical performance. Although some athletes use sugars post-exercise to replenish their energy stores, the use of simple sugars is counterproductive at any time.

Understanding What a Carb Really Is and How to Read Nutrition Labels Carbs

If you’re counting carbs you should use total carbohydrates. There are several tricks manufacturers use to understate their products carbs content significantly. There are times when a carb is not a carb, and when something not considered a carb is actually a carb. The confusion mainly stems from the food and supplement industry.

The Food Label terms for carbohydrate as defined by the FDA can be confusing, however, some of the definitions are straightforward, such as.

How to Calculate Total Carbohydrates

To calculate Total Carbohydrates manufacturers subtract the amount of the crude protein, total sugar, moisture, and ash from the total weight of the food. “Sugars: the sum of all free mono- and disaccharides (such as glucose, fructose, lactose, and sucrose).”

Sugar Alcohols are the sum of saccharide derivatives that a hydroxyl group replaces a ketone or aldehyde group such as (mannitol, xylitol) or is generally recognized as safe (sorbitol).

Other Carbohydrates are the difference between total carbohydrates and the sum of dietary fiber, sugars, and sugar alcohols.

Glycerol, Glycerin, and Glycerine also add to the grams of total carbohydrate per serving. Additionally, when the food label contains glycerin and has sugars, the glycerin content per serving is also written as sugar alcohol.

How Companies Deceive With The “Carb” Labels and How to Read Nutrition Labels to not be Deceived

These definitions might seem straightforward to you. But manufacturers have succeeded in deceiving consumers into believing products are healthier than they are. For example, the phrases “net carb,” “low carb,” and “impact carb” are not FDA definitions. Unfortunately, companies have made these statements up to make the shopper believe they are healthier. They were created to jump on the “low carb” trends and piggyback the Atkins and keto diets.

Calculating Net Carbs

To calculate the “net carb,” companies subtract the grams of fiber, sugar alcohols, and glycerin from the total carbohydrates. The theory behind this term is that the body does not digest fiber so it shouldn’t be counted as part of the total carbohydrates. Likewise, glycerin and sugar alcohols don’t increase insulin or blood glucose levels as sugars and starches do. However, sugar alcohols, glycerin, and even soluble fiber should not just be ignored. While avoiding the strict definition of carbohydrates helps the food industry increase sales by deceiving the public as far as the usefulness of their products for those on low carbohydrate diets. Soluble fiber and sugar alcohols can still affect your body negatively and should not be overconsumed. Don’t believe the hype food companies are trying to sell you to make you think that their products are healthy.

Protein

The last macronutrient listed on a label is protein, which is also in grams per serving. There are differences in the biological values and effect of different protein sources, but there is no distinction made for the type of protein or the source. Additionally, they don’t include amino acids and peptides because they don’t consider them whole-food proteins.

Vitamins

The only two vitamins required on the food label are vitamins A and C. This is presumably because of the historical importance to your health.

Minerals

Calcium and Iron are the only minerals required on labels and listed in percent daily values.

Ingredient List

The ingredient list is another part of the Nutrition Label that gives you an overview of everything in the product. The ingredients are in order of from highest amount to lowest amount in the food. Manufacturers must list everything from macronutrient to spices, preservatives, artificial coloring, and flavors. Sometimes the ingredient list is the only way for you to determine whether the food is right for you. The nutrition label might not have all the data you need to make a healthy decision.

Percent Daily Values

The Percent daily value (DV), listed in the right-hand column in percentages, are base on what the FDA believes the average person needs each day in a 2000-calorie diet. Specifically, percent DV tells you if the nutrients in a serving of food contribute a little or a lot to the recommended daily intake. The theory is your goal should be to eat 100% of each of those nutrients every day. For example, if a serving of eggs has 25% of the daily value of protein, then those eggs provide 25% of your daily protein needs based on a 2,000 calories a day diet.

Percent DV is a useful measure of whether a food is high or low in specific nutrients. A food is considered to be a good source of a nutrient if the percentage is between 10% and 19%. If the food has 5% or less, it’s considered to low, and if it has more than 20% of the percent DV, it’s a high source of that nutrient.

Food Label * and Footnotes

Note the asterisk * used after the heading “% Daily Value” on the Nutrition Facts label. The * refers to the footnote in the lower part of the nutrition label, that tells you “%DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie diet”. This statement has to be on all food labels. Although, the remaining information in the entire footnote may not be on the package if the size of the label is too small. When the full note does appear, it must be the same. It won’t change from one product to another, because it shows the recommended dietary advice for all Americans.

The required note is not about any specific food product. Occasionally the DVs in the footnote are based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. Check out these labels when you see one that shows both the 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diet. You will note that the DVs for some nutrients change, while others like cholesterol and sodium remain the same for both calorie amounts.

How the DVs Relate to the %DVs

Some of the 100% DVs are goals, while others are “try not to exceed.” In the example below, you will how the DVs relate to the %DVs and dietary guidance. For each nutrient listed, there is a DV, a %DV, and nutritional advice or a goal. The table illustrates the opinion of the FDA public health experts’ recommendation for upper or lower limits of the nutrients listed, based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet. Remember that some of the suggestions don’t change for a 2,500 calorie diet, and some do.

DVs Vs %DVs Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet and the Goal
NutrientDV%DVGoal
Total Fat65g= 100%DVLess than
Sat Fat20g= 100%DVLess than
Cholesterol300mg= 100%DVLess than
Sodium2400mg= 100%DVLess than
Total Carbohydrate300g= 100%DVAt least
Dietary Fiber25g= 100%DVAt least

Upper Daily Limits

The nutrients that have “upper daily limits” are listed first on the footnote of larger labels and on the example above. Upper limits means it is recommended that you stay below – eat “less than” – the Daily Value nutrient amounts listed per day. For example, the DV for Saturated fat (in the yellow section) is 20g. This amount is 100% DV for this nutrient. What is the goal or dietary advice? To eat “less than” 20 g or 100%DV for the day.<Lower Limit – Eat “At least”… Now look at the section in blue where dietary fiber is listed. The DV for dietary fiber is 25g, which is 100% DV. This means it is recommended that you eat “at least” this amount of dietary fiber per day. The DV for Total Carbohydrate (section in white) is 300g or 100%DV. This amount is recommended for a balanced daily diet that is based on 2,000 calories but can vary, depending on your daily intake of fat and protein. Now let’s look at the %DVs.

Other Important Information that May Be Contained on a Food Label

Caffeine Content

Another nearly unregulated area of nutrition is caffeine content. When caffeine is in food or beverages, it must appear in the list of ingredients on the label. However, companies aren’t required to list the amount of caffeine.

Very few companies voluntarily state the amount of caffeine in their products. When companies do list the mg of caffeine, they usually will compare it to a cup of coffee. An average cup of brewed coffee has around 100 mg of caffeine. However, the caffeine content of the same coffee of the same brand can vary a lot, often from 70 to 140 mg. Also, even decaffeinated coffee can contain a significant amount of caffeine. Up to 400 mg of caffeine, a day is considered safe for healthy adults in most cases. Many people consume much more caffeine than this daily. Some energy drinks have more than 400 mg of caffeine in one can and are dangerous.

You Should Now Know How To Read Nutrition Labels Like a Pro

Even though you can now read between the lies lines on nutrition labels, there is a lot more to know about nutrition than just what is on the labels. Things like phytonutrients are not even listed on nutrition labels.

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