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Reading packaged food labels can feel like deciphering a foreign language. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, nearly 65 percent of respondents said they look at the information provided, but only about 20 percent feel they understand all of it. Brenda F., a first-year student at Pasadena City College in California, says, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to properly read [nutrition labels]. If it was broken down [more simply], I think I would be more likely to make healthier food choices.”

Decoding the Facts

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that most prepared foods, snacks, desserts, and drinks use standard food labels.

These must list, among other things, the food’s ingredients and basic nutritional information. This includes:

  • Serving size
  • Total calories
  • Calories from fat
  • Total fat
  • Saturated and trans fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Total carbohydrate
  • Dietary fiber
  • Sugars
  • Protein
  • Percent Daily Value (% DV) of Vitamins A and C, Calcium, and Iron
  • Ingredients

How to interpret health claims like 'fat-free'

Health Claims: True or False?

According to the Food and Drug Association (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture, the health claims commonly found on food packaging have the following meanings:

Fat free: The product contains less than .5 g of fat per serving.

0 g trans fat per serving: The product contains less than .5 g of trans fat per serving. However, if the item contains ingredients such as “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil,” it has traces of trans fats, which can add up when consumed regularly.

Low fat: The product contains 3 g of fat or fewer per serving.

Reduced fat: The product has at least 25 percent less fat than the manufacturer’s original recipe.

Lean: The product contains less than 10 g of total fat, less than 4.5 g of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol per serving.

Extra lean: The product contains less than 5 g of total fat, less than 2 g of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol per serving.

Light: The product contains at least 1/3 fewer calories, or no more than 1/2 the fat, or no more than 1/2 the sodium per serving than the manufacturer’s original recipe.

A note about protein: According to the FDA, protein intake is not a public health concern for most adults. Therefore, % DV need only be listed if a claim such as “high in protein” is made.

Information on Cholesterol

There is a common misperception that cholesterol is bad. In fact, your body needs it to run smoothly, and recent longitudinal studies with huge sample sizes have found that higher cholesterol levels in the blood are not directly related to higher dietary intake of cholesterol. For many people, genetic factors impact the production of cholesterol by their own bodies.

Nonetheless, the American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults consume no more than 300 mg of cholesterol daily.

More information about “good” and “bad” cholesterol.

Information on Sodium

Sodium

Sodium is an electrolyte that works in conjunction with potassium to regulate bodily functions. But in excess, sodium can lead to health problems, such as high blood pressure.

The maximum daily sodium intake for healthy adults (aged 19-51) is 2,300 mg a day. Vicki B., a sophomore at the Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, Texas, says, “The amount of sodium in [some] packaged and fast foods is astounding. Some have an entire day’s worth in one meal!” In order to stay within the guidelines, select items with 240 mg or fewer of sodium per serving.

Here are some phrases commonly used on labels:

Sodium Free: The product contains less than 5 mg of sodium, and no sodium chloride, a chemically derived form of salt.

Very low sodium: The product contains 35 mg or fewer of sodium.

Low sodium: The product contains 140 mg or fewer of sodium.

Reduced sodium: The product contains at least 25 percent less sodium than the manufacturer’s original recipe.

Information on Potassium

Listing potassium on nutrition labels is optional, but it’s recommended that healthy adults get about 4,500 mg daily. This essential nutrient is found in milk, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, and nuts. When listed, choose items with at least 300 mg of potassium per serving.

Percent Daily Values
All % DVs are based on optimal intake levels for energy (calories), nutrients, and other food components based on gender and age. Nutrition labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so if you consume more or fewer, the information won’t be quite accurate for you.

The most commonly used guide is Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs), a set of standards established in the U.S. in the 1940s. RDAs are sufficient to meet the needs of about 98 percent of healthy people. More recently, additional standards have been developed, such as Tolerable Upper Intake (UI) levels: maximum daily nutrient intake levels unlikely to pose a risk of adverse health effects to almost all healthy people.

Serving Size/Servings per Container
The facts listed on a package are based on one serving of the food. At the top of the Nutrition Factschart you’ll find a recommended serving size noting how many grams of the item (or individual pieces) make up what a person is expected to eat at one time.

This is tricky, especially when it comes to calorie-dense foods. The manufacturer may list a very small serving size, making the quantity of calories, fat, and other contents appear to be less than you might realistically consume. It’s not uncommon for small packages (like those in a vending machine) and bottled beverages to contain two or more servings. For example, a “snack-size” package of potato chips might have two servings, while most people would eat the whole bag. This can be true of “healthy snacks,” like granola bars, too. So before diving into the carton, make sure you understand the serving size.

Calories
Almost 70 percent of the respondents to theStudent Health 101 survey reported that they pay attention to calorie listings, which indicate how much energy you will get from eating a particular food. Although items that are high in calories are sometimes considered an indulgence, the total per serving isn’t a full indicator of the food’s healthfulness. Frankie R., a junior and personal trainer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, says, “It seems like people over-emphasize calories. I take note of nutrient density instead.”

Fat
When it comes to fat, quality trumps quantity. There are different types of fat, and the ratio of them in your diet is more important than the total amount, although it is recommended that 20-35 percent of your total calories come from fat. (This is equal to about 50-65 grams daily.)

Understanding Ingredients

The FDA requires that companies list every ingredient in their products. The ingredients at the beginning of a list are found in higher concentrations, while those at the very end of the list may appear in trace amounts. (You may have noticed the phrase “Contains less than 2 percent of the following” on many labels.)

Manufacturers don’t want to give away their secret recipes, so you’ll often see things like “spices” or “natural flavors” listed. You may also see a few possible options, such as two or three types of oil.

If you have food allergies or other dietary restrictions, pay close attention. Many products now call out substances that are commonly a problem, including: eggs, fish and seafood, milk and lactose, peanuts and tree nuts, soy, wheat, and gluten. Some companies also indicate if a product was made on shared equipment.

Mystery Ingredients
Claire H. a sophomore at Montgomery College in Maryland, says, “In general, the fewer ingredients and the more recognizable, the better.” But have you ever found yourself in the grocery aisle asking, “What is that?”

The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives provides guidelines to ensure consumer safety, and most food additives are considered “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the FDA, meaning they have not been proven to be associated with any negative health outcomes.

Information about some of the most common food additives

Mystery Ingredients, Revealed

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Flavor enhancer chemically derived from seaweed in the early 1900s; now manufactured by fermenting starch, molasses, or sugar.
  • Commonly found in salty snacks, Chinese food, canned vegetables, and some processed meats.
  • Studies conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) find that people have various reactions associated with MSG consumption, such as headaches and flushing, but more evidence is needed to demonstrate that these are directly linked to MSG.
High fructose corn syrup
  • Sweetener derived from genetically modified corn.
  • Favored by the food industry over sucrose (derived from sugar cane) because high-fructose corn syrup is cheaper to make and generally increases shelf life.
  • Has the same calories per gram as sucrose, and studies reported by the American Council on Science and Health have found that it has very similar effects on insulin, blood sugar, metabolism, and hormone production.
  • Commonly used in soft drinks and other sweet snacks; associated with increased prevalence of obesity due to volume of consumption.
BHT
  • Synthetic antioxidant used in food packaging.
  • Prevents fat from going rancid.
  • Little research available about long-term health effects.
Red No. 40
  • Most widely used synthetic food dye.
  • Little research available about short- or long-term health effects.
Sodium nitrate/nitrites
  • Chemicals used as food preservatives in deli meats, hot dogs, bacon, and other “cured” meats.
  • Also used in fertilizers and rodenticides (to kill rodents).
  • Intended to prevent bacterial growth, add flavor, and retain meat color.
  • According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to these substances during pregnancy is associated with various birth defects.
Lechithin
  • Commonly used to improve and maintain the texture and consistency of foods containing fat or oil and water. For example, ice cream.
  • Little research available about short- or long-term health effects.
Sodium benzoate
  • Preservative used to inhibit mold and yeast growth in some fresh foods, such as: hummus, condiments, fruit juices, soft drinks, and fruit products.
  • Studies indicate that when combined with Vitamin C, sodium benzoate is more likely to convert to benzene, a known carcinogen.
  • Limiting consumption is recommended, especially if your diet is high in citrus fruit or other ample sources of Vitamin C.
Carrageenan
  • Soluble fiber derived from seaweed.
  • Used as a stabilizer or thickener to enhance the texture and consistency of foods.
  • Little research available about short- or long-term health effects.
Aspartame
  • Synthetic sweetener.
  • Most recognized brand name is Equal®.
Saccharin
  • One of the first artificial sweeteners to be developed.
  • Most recognized brand name is Sweet'N Low®.
  • Conflicting information about potential link with cancer.
Sucralose
  • Artificial sweetener, modified from sucrose (natural sugar).
  • Most recognized brand name is Splenda®.
  • Fairly new to the food industry; little research available about short- or long-term health effects.
In moderation, the above sweeteners are considered to be “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the FDA.

Sneaky Jargon

Companies that manufacture prepared foods often use words like “light,” “lean,” or “low” to advertise their products. But many low-fat and fat-free products contain hidden salt, sugars, and other additives to compensate for the flavor lost through fat removal. “I used to think I was being healthy by buying low-fat frozen dinners, says Jaime V., a recent graduate from the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “Then I noticed they had almost double the sodium of some regular frozen meals.”

Also be wary of products claiming to be “calorie-free,” which, according to FDA guidelines, have fewer than five calories per serving. Diet products tend to be less satisfying, so you may eat more than you would of a more filling option, and you’d be surprised how quickly five calories at a time can add up! Plus, calorie-free foods might have plenty of other things your body doesn’t need.

If you understand and use the nutritional information on labels, you can make the most of your time at the grocery store.

Take Action!

  • Identify serving sizes and be mindful when eating packaged foods.
  • Consider nutritional value in addition to calories and fat.
  • Learn to understand “mystery ingredients.”
  • Be wary of health claims like “low-calorie” and “fat-free.”
  • Choose foods with whole, simple ingredients.

The Skinny on Fats

Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products such as red meat, poultry skin, and whole dairy products but are also in some plant oils, such as coconut and palm.

Diets high in saturated fat have been shown to increase a person’s cholesterol levels and can be associated with a higher risk of developing health problems, such as heart disease.

As a result, it is recommended that most people consume no more than 10 percent of their total daily calories from saturated fat. A good guide is to choose foods with less than or equal to 3.5 grams of saturated fat per serving.

Unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) fats are considered important elements of a healthy diet. They are required for the body to maintain normal function, and can only be obtained naturally, from food.

These fats are not always specifically listed on ingredient labels, but can be calculated by subtracting the amount of saturated and trans fat indicated from the total fat.

Good sources of unsaturated fats include fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados, and peanut butter.

Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been modified by food manufacturers to enhance the flavor, appearance, and shelf life of foods. Unfortunately, after they are modified, they behave in the body like saturated fats and have been shown to clog arteries and increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease.

Trans fats can be sneaky to find on food labels. Look for words like “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil in ingredient lists. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than one percent of total daily calories as trans fats (about two grams a day).

Top 10 Ways to Find Healthier Packaged Foods

Use the following tips to select foods with a lot of nutritional bang for your buck:
  1. Review serving sizes carefully so you can accurately assess nutritional value.
  2. Choose foods that are nutrient-dense by reviewing their % DV of potassium, vitamins, minerals, and protein.
  3. Look for a minimum of 3 g of dietary fiber per serving.
  4. Foods with whole grains high in the list of ingredients tend to be more healthful.
  5. Avoid saturated and trans fats, including hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
  6. Select foods with healthy, unsaturated fats like fish, nuts and seeds, and avocados.
  7. Look for less than or equal to 8 g of sugar per serving.
  8. Find options that have 240 mg or fewer of sodium per serving.
  9. Don’t assume that “low-fat,” “reduced-calorie,” and other “light” foods are more healthful. They often have artificial sweeteners, colors, thickeners, and other ingredients meant to make up for flavor and texture loss.
  10. If you have food allergies or other dietary restrictions, pay close attention to ingredient lists and statements about shared equipment.

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Jenna Volpe is a registered dietitian and certified group exercise instructor in Massachusetts, with a specialty in weight management and eating disorders.