Food Labels– What Do They Really Mean?

Make sure you know how to understand food labels and ingredient lists!

Understanding food labels can be tricky business– serving sizes might be half of a container that otherwise looks like a single serving to you, and ingredients can go be disguised by other names that you don’t recognize.  Read up below on how to understand food labels, and make sure you’re informed about what you’re putting in your body!

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Serving Size

At the top of the nutriton information panel on the back of each product, you’ll see the serving size.  This might come in grams or another unit of measurement that you don’t keep handy in your brain, but it should also estimate about how many servings are in that container.  Don’t just assume that a small container is one serving– check this information first so you can then inform yourself about the balance of nutrients listed below.



Once you know the serving size, check how many calories are in each serving.  Remember to do the math on how many calories you’re actually consuming if you double up on portions.  A common problem in the U.S. is that many people eat more calories than necessary each day, and even with all of those calories they still don’t meet the ideal nutrients intake recommended by the FDA.  Checking out the calories (as well as the calories that come from fat) is an important step to deciding if this is a food that you want to include in your diet. The nutrition information panel is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.  The FDA suggests that 40 calories per serving size is low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 calories is high.  Take this into consideration when checking out the back of the box or can!


Avoid These Ingredients!

Try to avoid products with trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.  These can contribute to problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure.  By limiting these in your diet as much as possible, you can achieve a more balanced diet and better health.  It’s important to note that these ingredients often appear in processed foods, so you may be able to avoid many of these ingredients by taking the long route of cooking a meal from scratch instead of buying the convenient boxed versions that fill our supermarkets!

Look for These Ingredients!

Try to opt for items that are high in Vitamins A and C, Calcium, Iron, and Dietary Fiber.  Many Americans don’t get enough of these nutrients, despite their high caloric intake.  You can see the percent daily value available on the back of each box (based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet) which can help you to better understand how well a certain food may help you meet the necessary daily intake of specific vitamins and nutrients.


Check the Ingredients!

The other aspect of the food label that’s important to understand is the ingredient list.  The most important piece of information to know about the ingredient list is that ingredients are listed in order of quantity.  You want the first several ingredients of any packaged food to be whole ingredients that you recognize, not chemicals or fillers.  If the first ingredient on the list is something you can’t pronounce, it’s probably not very nutritious.


Watch Out for Sneaky Names

The next detail to be aware of when reading the ingredients list is that many undesirable ingredients go by different names.  For example, sugar can be listed as plain sugar, but it can also be listed as corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup, barley malt syrup, agave nectar, or dehydrated cane juice (and those are just a few!).  Sodium also has several different names that can appear on a label.  Trans fat, something we want to avoid, might not appear at all!  Instead, ingredients that are high in trans fat (partially hydrogenated oil and hydrogenated oil, for example).

Don’t Fall for Gimmicks!

Health food labels on the front of foods can also be quite deceptive, so watch out! ”No added sugar” might make you think that a food is sugar-free, but some foods are naturally high in sugar.  ”Natural” doesn’t mean the same as organic.  It only means that the product began as something natural (such as pears or grains), but it doesn’t denote what may have been done to those natural ingredients on the way to making the product.  Low-fat and sugar-free options often are high in other undesirable areas in order to compensate for the lack of taste that comes with cutting out fat or sugar.  It’s important to read up on the labels that denote ”healthy” food, because they are designed to entice those of us that want to eat healthily!  It’s a sales gimmick!


Opt for Whole Foods

We know that the best way to avoid nasty ingredients and increase our intake of quality nutrients is to eat whole foods.  This doesn’t mean everything that comes in a box or a bag is off limits or terrible, but those products DO require a close look at the food label!


Those are my top tips about checking out food labels!  What’s your biggest difficulty understanding food labels or ingredient lists?

Make sure you know how to understand food labels and ingredient lists!

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