Decoding Nutritional Labels

I have been researching trying to find some helpful information about decoding nutritional labels on food products.  As this can be really frustrating to try to figure out.  I hope this is helpful to some……

Do you eat the amount of food defined as one serving? Remember, fat and calorie measurements on the label are for a single serving size only. And we know it’s easy to eat more than one measly serving. Here’s a perfect example of the difference between serving size and the actual servings eaten: one serving of ice cream (½ cup) has approximately 12 grams of fat. Most of the people I know can easily eat 1 cup in a sitting, and you know what that means. When you double the serving size, you double everything: the calories, protein grams, carbohydrate grams, and, of course, the fat grams. Pay close attention to the amount per serving. If you go over (or under) on servings, keep that in mind when reading the remaining information.


When calories are listed on a label, they refer to the amount of calories in a single serving. Plain and simple. The sample label shows 90 calories per serving. What about those “lo-cal” claims frequently displayed on the packaging? Luckily, the following key words are now defined by the government and must mean what they say:

  • Calorie-freeLess than 5 calories per serving.
  • Low-calorieForty calories or less for most food items; 120 calories or less for main dish products (lentil soup, turkey burger, chicken breast, and so on).
  • Reduced-calorie Must have at least 25 percent fewer calories than the regular version of that food item.

Total Fat

This section lists the total number of fat grams from all types of fat—saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. As you can see, the label reveals that there are 3 grams of fat per serving. Another listing titled “Calories from Fat” converts the total fat grams into fat calories (number of fat grams × 9 = calories coming from fat). Again, the sample label reports 30 calories from fat per serving. This is valuable information because it allows you to identify the percentage of fat in a particular food. Ideally, you should choose foods with a big difference between the total number of calories and calories coming from fat. The bigger the gap, the less the percentage of total calories coming from fat.

Here are some of the common “fat” phrases that appear on packaged food products and how they are defined by the government:

  • Fat-freeLess than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.
  • Low-fatThree grams of fat (or less) per serving.
  • Reduced-fat At least 25 percent less fat per serving than the original version of a food product.


Saturated Fat

Even though saturated fat is part of the total fat in food, it gets listed by itself because it can be extremely bad for you. As you can see, the sample label shows no saturated fat—good deal! In general, avoid foods that are high in saturated fat. This type of fat is responsible for increasing your risk of heart disease and other illnesses.

Here are some of the common “saturated fat” phrases that appear on packaged food products and how they are defined by the government:

  • Saturated fat-freeLess than 0.5 gram per serving.
  • Low in saturated fatOne gram or less in a serving size or no more than 10 percent of calories coming from saturated fat.
  • Reduced saturated fat At least 25 percent less saturated fat than the original version.



Remember this waxy guy? Together with its partner in crime—fat—dietary cholesterol is a key player in raising blood cholesterol and therefore increasing your risk for heart disease. You’ll notice that the cholesterol content of a food product is measured in milligrams. Budget your foods and eat less than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day.

Understand the following claims when they appear on food labels:

  • Cholesterol-freeLess than 2 milligrams of cholesterol.
  • Low-cholesterol Twenty milligrams (or less) of cholesterol.

These cholesterol claims are only allowed when a food product contains 2 grams (or less) of saturated fat as well.


Don’t let the terminology confuse you. The label calls it sodium (300 mg reported on the sample label), but most people know it as salt. Remember, sodium is only a component of salt. However, that one component is responsible for water retention and high blood pressure in salt-sensitive people. Limit the amount of high-sodium foods in your diet, and aim for a daily intake of 2,300 milligrams or less.

Here’s some sodium lingo and what it means:

  • Sodium-free Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • Low-sodiumLess than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • Reduced sodium At least 25 percent less sodium than the original food version.

Total Carbohydrate

In What Exactly Is a Carbohydrate?, you became well versed on the various types of carbohydrates. Now you can use the label information to identify whether a food contains a lot of simple sugar or complex carbohydrate.

First, look for the listing titled “Total Carbohydrate.” This will reveal the amount of all types of carbs (simple and complex) in a single serving of a food. Next, look for the smaller listing located underneath “total carbohydrate” titled “Sugars.” This indicates how much simple sugar is in a serving of that particular food. Obviously, the less simple sugar, the better. Now, you’re ready to determine the amount of complex carbohydrate in a food by simply subtracting the total carbs from the sugars.

Let’s look at the previous label for an example:


Total Carbohydrate 13 grams
Sugars 3 grams

Thse numbers indicate that the majority of carbohydrates are coming from more complex sources, 10 grams to be exact.

Located under “total carbyhydrates” is “dietary fiber.” Dietary fiber is predominantly found in carbohydrate-rich foods and includes both soluble and insoluble fiber sources. becuase fiber promotes regularity, along with reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, choose foods with at least 2.5 grams of dietary fiber per serving, and aim for a total intake of 25-35 grams each day.


As you know from Your Personal Protein Requirements, most Americans eat far more protein than they actually need (0.36 grams per pound of body weight). Although some of the best protein sources, unfortunately, do not carry a nutrition label (such as beef, poultry, eggs, and fish), nutrifacts posters are required in meat and produce departments, so ask your grocer and take a look. On the other hand, most dairy products and prepackaged food items do list the grams of protein in a single serving. It’s interesting to see that there are even small amounts of protein in foods you might not expect.

(above is from

The following are ingredients that should be avoided when choosing items at the grocery store especially for those who clean eat or want to reduce the amount of processed foods from their diet.  . Most are known carcinogens and/or linked to major illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, ADD, hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity.

Preservatives (look for these in packaged items like bread, pasta, frozen meals, ice cream, etc.)

You can view a list of preservatives here

  • Sulfites/sulfates
  • Potassium sorbate
  • Sodium nitrate/nitrite
  • disodium EDTA
  • DEA
  • BHA and BHT

Food additive categories

Food additives are divided into categories and assigned a number for easier identification internationally and I guess, to shorten and hide the long and in some instances scary chemical names behind those numbers.  In Europe the numbers have E in front of them.  The categories are:

  • 100-182 Colours
  • 200-297 Preservatives
  • 300-385 Acidity Regulators,      Anti-Oxidants, Mineral Salts
  • 400-495 Vegetable Gums,      Thickeners, Emulsifiers, Stabilisers, Gelling Agents
  • 500-586 Mineral Salts,      Anti-Caking Agents
  • 620-641 Flavour Enhancers
  • 900-1521 Thickeners,      Vegetable Gums, Humectants, Artificial Sweeteners, etc.
  • Flavours, natural or      artificial, are not regulated and thus don’t have any numeric identification

Not all food additives are made same:  some are natural and ok to use, others, however whether natural or artificial are unsafe for consumption, and have been banned in different countries.  While researching the food additives, I came across several food additives tables that listed potentially unsafe additives.  Every source was different so I decided to make a table of food additives for myself as my personal shopping guide.

food additives have been divided into two groups:  green – ok to consume and red – avoid if possible.  The additives in green are either natural, regarded as safe for use or derived from natural ingredients.  However, some could be either derived from a natural source or made artificially like citric acid 330 or turmeric colour 100.  The additives in red have either been proven as unsafe, connected with health or behavioural problems, have not enough information about them or have been added recently to the approved list.  My motto here is: if there is a question mark – it’s red. See link above.

The black numbers are the worst offenders. They are either banned in Australia or in other countries, or are suspected carcinogens!  Just few of them are:

  • 102      Tartrazine – Colour. Linked to hyperactivity, skin rashes, migraines, behavioural      problems, thyroid problems, chromosome damage. Used to colour drinks,      sweets, jams, cereals, snack foods, canned fish, packaged soups and a dye      for wool and silk. Banned in Norway, Austria and Finland. Restricted use  in Sweden and Germany.
  • 249      Potassium nitrite – Preservative.  Linked with behavioural      problems, asthma, breathing difficulties, headaches, dizziness, possible      carcinogen. Typical products include processed, cured and smoked      meat and fish, root vegetables. Not permitted in foods for infant and      young children.
  • 621      Monosodium L-glutamate or MSG – Flavour enhancer.  Should not be permitted in foods for      infants and young children. Some of health problems MSG is linked with      include asthma, hyperactivity, depression, mood changes, sleeplessness,      nausea, migraine, linked to infertility. To be avoided especially by pregnant      women, children, elderly and people with heart disease. Commonly found in      potato and corn chips, powdered soup stock, snacks, crackers, sauces etc.
  • 951      Aspartame – Artificial sweetener. Present in more than      7000 products worldwide.  Linked to      many health problems:  cancer,      asthma, nausea, depressions, hyperactivity, seizures, breathing      difficulties, memory loss and many others.       It is believed to be the most dangerous food additive on the      market.  Sold as Equal®, NutraSweet®,      Canderal®, Benevia® and Spoonful® sugar substitutes.  Commonly found in cordials, juices,      snacks, deserts, vitamins, diet and low calorie drinks, soft drinks and many others.


Refined and artificial ingredients

  • Wheat flour, enriched flour, white flour, white rice flour
  • Sucrose, sugar, dextrose, fructose
  • Sucralose/Splenda
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Sugar alcohols: xylitol, sorbitol
  • Artificial colors (FD&C)
  • Artificial flavors


Processed soy

  • Vitamin E derived from soy
  • Hydrolyzed soy protein
  • Soy lecithin
  • Soy flour
  • Soy protein isolates


Industrialized meat

  • Conventional dairy products (butter, yogurt, milk, cheese, eggs)
  • Corn- and grain-fed meat
  • Conventionally preserved/smoked meat (bacon, lunch meats, etc.)


Processed fats

  • Hydrogenated or fractioned oils of any kind
  • Canola oil


Other icky stuff, buy organic to avoid any of these hidden ingredients

  • Potassium sorbate (one of the ingredients in the lethal injection!)
  • MSG
  • Alum
  • Calcium propionate
  • Many canned items are lined with BPA


Produce on the dirty dozen list should be purchased organically, because they are known to contain a significant amounts of dangerous chemicals

  1. Apple
  2. Celery
  3. Strawberries
  4. Peaches
  5. Spinach
  6. Nectarines
  7. Grapes
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Potatoes
  10. Blueberries
  11. Lettuce
  12. Kale/collard greens


Many fruits and veggies are sprayed with fungicides or have toxic skin/peels, these are not part of the Dirty Dozen list

  • Bananas
  • Citrus fruits
  • Lemon and lime juice contain preservatives


Some information is from a great clean eating website. and also


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