Understanding Food Labels

Know what you’re eating! Read and understand the nutritional facts” on the label and not just the promotional words.

Know what you’re eating! Read and Understand Nutritional FoodLabels

Food Labels
Read the “Nutritional Facts” on the label and not just the promotional words.  
Food advertised as containing “No cholesterol” can still contain large amounts of harmful saturated fats and transfatty acids.
(The area below in yellow is a sample label  from a box of breakfast cereal)
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1 cup (30g), Servings Per Container About 25
Amount Per Serving
Note the serving size as it varies  considerably between  products! The label to the left  refers to the amount of nutrients in 1 cup of this food. There are 25 cups of food in this container.
Calories 120 Calories from Fat 15 Calories: In general, 40 calories is low, 100 is moderate, and 400 is high for one serving

% Daily

% Daily Value is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.  Daily Values (DVs) are used on food and dietary supplement labels to indicate the percent of the recommended daily amount of each nutrient that a serving provides. In other words, DV means it is recommended that you eat “at least” this amount of that nutrient per day.
DV replaces the previous designation of United States Recommended Daily Allowances (USRDAs).
Quick guide: 5% or less of the Daily Value is low, 20% or more is high.Note: Some nutrients have “upper daily limits” (UL) which are listed first on the footnote of larger labels. Upper limits means it is recommended that you stay below, or eat less than the Daily Value (DV) listed per day.
Total Fat


There is 1.5 g of total fat in 1 cup of this cereal which is 2% of the recommended daily amount for a 2,000 calorie diet.  There is actually no optimal amount of total fat in a healthy diet. One of the most important determinants of blood cholesterol level is fat in the diet–not total fat, but specific types of fat.  Bad fats increase the risk for certain diseases and good fats lower the risk.(1)

Fat 0g

0% There is no saturated Fat-(bad fat) in this cereal.  Saturated fats are usually a bigger problem than the cholesterol we consume.  In general, the recommendation is to limit saturated fat to 15 to 20 gms/day; for people with diabetes or heart disease, limit saturated fat to <10 grams/day. For people with elevated LDL-cholesterol, limit to 15 gms/day
Fat 0g
 Trans fats are found in deep-fried foods, bakery products, packaged snack food, margarines, and crackers, and consumption of these foods significantly raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol , reduce HDL (good) cholesterol, and increase triglyceride levels.
Trans Fat–(really bad fat)try to eliminate from diet altogether. The consumption of unhealthy trans fats is remarkably prevalent in the United States yet the adverse health effects of these fats are far more dangerous on average than those of food contaminants or pesticide residues. As of Jan 1, 2006 food manufacturers will be required to list trans fat on nutritional food labels. This will make it easier for consumers to avoid these fats. However, in certain foods, these labels can be misleading. For example, producers of foods that contain less than 500 mg of fatty acids per serving are allowed to list the content as zero on the packaging. But in multiple servings, consumers might unwittingly consume substantial amounts of the trans fats. Read the ingredients list to find clues to hidden trans fats: the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils” means the product contains trans fats.

Another problem with hidden trans fats is that food labels are rarely seen in restaurants, bakeries, and other retail food outlets.

Fat 0.5g
Polyunsaturated Fatgood fat. There are 2 main categories of unsaturated fats: Polyunsaturated fats & Monounsaturated fats. Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats lower blood cholesterol when substituted for saturated fats in the diet.(2)
Fat 0.5g
Monounsaturated Fatgood fat
0% Cholesterol:  limit to <300 mg/day   One large whole egg is about 212 mg of cholesterol.  Note: If LDL-cholesterol is high, it is recommended that you limit cholesterol intake to <200 mg/day(2).  Note: Food advertised as containing “No cholesterol” can still contain large amounts of harmful saturated fats and transfatty acids.
210 mg
9% Sodium  Research shows that eating less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about 1 tsp of salt) per day may reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Most of the sodium people eat comes from processed foods, not from the saltshaker.
Total Carbohydrate 24g 8% Carbohydrates contain about 4 calories per gram. This product contains 24 grams, thus 96 of the total 120 calories are from carbohydrates.

The recommended daily amount (DV) for Total Carbohydrate is 300g. This amount is recommended for a balanced daily diet that is based on 2,000 calories. Eating fewer than 130 grams of carbohydrate a day can lead to the buildup of ketones (partially broken-down fats) in your blood. A buildup of ketones in your blood (called ketosis) can cause your body to produce high levels of uric acid, which is a risk factor for gout (a painful swelling of the joints) and kidney stones. Ketosis may be especially risky for pregnant women and people with diabetes or kidney disease(3).

8% This cereal provides 8% of the recommended daily amount of fiber.  Fiber is part of plant foods that is not digested. The benefits of consuming adequate amounts of fiber include lowering cholesterol, reducing constipation and weight loss. The recommendation is to eat 25-30 grams of fiber per day. In general, an excellent source of fiber contains five grams or more per serving, while a good source of fiber contains 2.5 – 4.9 grams per serving. To achieve this goal, increase gradually to avoid stomach irritation. The grams of sugar and fiber are counted as part of the grams of total carbohydrate. If a food has 5 grams or more fiber in a serving, subtract the fiber grams from the total grams of carbohydrate for a more accurate estimate of the carbohydrate content. (10)
Sugars 11g
Sugars: If you are concerned about your intake of  sugars, the amount of sugar should not be more than 1/2 of the total carbohydrates.  For example, a food with 24g of total carbohydrate with 23g from sugars, should be avoided.
Sugar alcohols A sugar alcohol is neither sugar nor alcohol but is actually a carbohydrate with a chemical structure that partially resembles a sugar and partially resembles an alcohol. Another term for sugar alcohols is polyols. They are a group of caloric sweeteners that are incompletely absorbed and metabolized by the body and consequently contribute fewer calories than sugars. The sugar alcohols or polyols commonly used in the United States include sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, erythritol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Their caloric content ranges from one-and-a-half to three calories per gram compared to four calories per gram for sugars. Some of these polyols are sweeter than sugar so you can use less to get equal sweetness and, as a result, consume fewer calories. Use of sugar alcohols in a product does not necessarily mean the product is low in carbohydrate or calories. And, just because a package says “sugar-free” on the outside, that does not mean that it is calorie or carbohydrate-free. Always remember to check the label for the grams of carbohydrate and calories.

Due to their incomplete absorption, the polyol sweeteners produce a lower glycemic response than glucose or sucrose and may be useful for people with diabetes. Sugar alcohol-sweetened products may have fewer calories than comparable products sweetened with sucrose or corn syrup and hence could play a useful role in weight management.

Protein 3g

Protein contains about 4 calories per gram.  Thus 12 calories in this product comes from protein.

To calculate how much daily protein you need:

  • Children: 0.5 grams of protein for every pound (divide weight by 2)
  • Healthy Adults: The average adult needs 50 to 65 grams of protein each day. This is the amount in four ounces of meat and a cup of cottage cheese.
  • People with liver or kidney disease: Increased protein-rich foods may be dangerous for people with liver or kidney disease because they lack the ability to get rid of the waste products of protein metabolism.

Most Americans eat more protein than their bodies require, and eating too much protein can increase health risks. High-protein animal foods are usually also high in saturated fat. Eating large amounts of high-fat foods for a sustained period raises the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and several types of cancer. Also, people who can’t use excess protein effectively may be at higher risk of kidney and liver disorders, and osteoporosis.(4)

Many Americans follow popular high protein diets, such as the Atkins, Zone, Protein Power, Sugar Busters and Stillman diets. These diets can cause a quick drop in weight because eliminating carbohydrates causes a loss of body fluids. Lowering carbohydrate intake also prevents the body from completely burning fat. In the diets that are also high in protein, substances called ketones are formed and released into the bloodstream, a condition called ketosis. It makes dieting easier because it lowers appetite and may cause nausea, but it can cause your body to produce high levels of uric acid, which is a risk factor for gout (a painful swelling of the joints) and kidney stones. Ketosis may be especially risky for pregnant women and people with diabetes or kidney disease.(3)

Most of these high protein diets are not balanced in terms of the body’s essential nutrients. If followed for a long time, they can result in potential health problems.

Vitamin A 10% Vitamins: This cereal provides 10% of the recommended daily value of Vitamin A and Vitamin C for a 2,000 calorie diet.
Vitamin C 10%
Ingredients Whole grain oatssugar, oat bran, modified corn starch, honeybrown sugar syrup, salt, ground almonds,  iron, Vitamin C Ingredients are listed at the end in descending order by weight, meaning the first ingredient makes up the largest proportion of the food.

Avoid: Check the ingredient list to find ingredients you’d like to avoid, such as coconut oil or palm oil, which are high in saturated fat. Also try to avoid hydrogenated oils that are high in trans fat. They may not listed by total amount on the label, but you can choose foods that don’t list hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list at all.

Look for heart-healthy ingredients: The ingredient list is also a good place to look for heart-healthy ingredients such as soy; monounsaturated fats such as olive or canola oils; or whole grains, like whole wheat flour and oats. The FDA recommends substituting whole grains for refined grains, such as white bread, white flour, white sugar, and white pasta. Consuming at least 3 or more ounce-equivalents of whole grains per day can reduce the risk of several chronic diseases and may help with weight maintenance. For many whole-grain products, the words “whole” or “whole grain” will appear before the grain ingredient’s name. The whole grain should be the first ingredient listed. Wheat flour, enriched flour, and degerminated cornmeal are not whole grains. The Food and Drug Administration requires foods that bear the whole-grain health claim to contain 51 percent or more whole-grain ingredients by weight per reference amount and be low in fat.(2)

Sugars: If you are concerned about your intake of  sugars, make sure that added sugars are not listed as one of the first few ingredients. Other names for added sugars include: corn syrup, brown sugar syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, honey, maple syrup, molasses and turbinado.

1) How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
2) “Taking a Closer Look at the Label” from The American Diabetes Association
3) Weight Loss and Nutrition Myths from The Natl Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
4) High Protein Diets from The American Heart Association