How to Read Food Labels

Nutrition labeling is only required on food making a nutrition claim.  However, you can find nutritional information on almost all processed foods.  Here is how to read these labels.

  1. Nutrition information is given for a “single serving”.  The “single size” and “number of servings per container” permit you to calculate calories and nutrients in what you eat.
  2. Amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat per serving are listed in grams.  Sodium is listed in milligrams.
  3. Percentage of the U.S. recommended daily allowances (USRDA) for protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, three B vitamins (thiamin, niacin and riboflavin), calcium, and iron are often listed.

List of Ingredients:

All ingredients are listed in order of predominance by weight.  If, for example, corn is listed first, then that product has more corn by weight than other ingredients.  The only foods not required to list all ingredients are so-called standardized foods.  These standards of identity set by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) require that all foods called by a particular name (such as ketchup or mayonnaise) contain certain mandatory ingredients.  You can identify food high in sugar, fat, or sodium if those nutrients are in the main ingredients, i.e., one of the first three ingredients listed.  Sugar, fat, and sodium, however, have other names to look for.

Sugar: Corn Syrup, molasses, glucose, fructose, dextrose.

Fat: Butter, lard, oil, margarine, hydrogenated shortening.

Sodium: Salt, MSG, sodium-based preservatives such as sodium citrate.

Product Dating:

Manufactures may use product dating but are not required to do so by the FDA.  To benefit from this specific information, consumers need to know the commonly used types:

Pack Date:  Date food was manufactured, processed or packed.  You must know normal shelf life of the product.

Pull or Sell Date:  Last date product should be sold, if stored and handled properly.  It allows for home storage time, such as refrigerating milk.

Expiration Date:  Last date food should be eaten or used.

Freshness Date:  For baked goods.  Food might not taste as good after the date, but it’s wholesome and safe.

Definitions of Label Terms:

Diet:  A product that contains no more than 40 calories per serving or has at least one third fewer calories than the regular product.

Dietetic:  One or more ingredient (usually sodium or sugar) has been changed, substituted, or restricted.  Not necessarily low in calories.

Lean:  Nor more than 10% fat by weight, not by calories.

Extra-Lean:  No more than 5% fat by weight than the original product.

Leaner:  At least 25% less fat by weight than the original product.

Light/Lite:  For meat and poultry, USDA policy says “light” means 25% less sodium, salt, breading, calories, or fat.  For other foods, there’s no legal definition.  Currently, the term is used for foods that contain less sodium, calories, fat, sugar, or calorie content.

Low Calorie:  No more than 40 calories per serving.  Watch serving size.  Foods naturally low in calories cannot be labeled “low calorie.’

Sugar-free/Sugarless:  Has no sucrose (table sugar), but may have other sweeteners like honey, or sorbitol.  Not always low calorie.

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