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Deciphering Food Labels

If you have ever dieted, you probably read food labels. Nutrition starts with studying food packaging information. When looking at labels, start with portion size. Compare the two labels below. Both have the same serving size—½ cup. However, if I ate the entire can of Brand A I would consume 840 calories and 3720 mg of sodium. An entire can of Brand B will net me 315 calories and 805 mg of sodium. Both provide lots of fiber, but I don’t want to think of what would happen if I ate all of Brand A.


Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: ½ cup

Servings Per Container 6

Amount Per Serving

Calories 140  Calories from Fat 10

% Daily Value

Total Fat 1g                           2%

Saturated Fat 0g            0%

Trans Fat 0g                0%

Cholesterol 0g                        0%

Sodium 620 mg                     26%

Total Carbohydrates 28 g            9%     

 Dietary Fiber 5g        20%

Sugars 11g

Protein 6g

Vitamin A 0%      Vitamin C 2%

Calcium 6%          Iron 10%


Ingredients: water, prepared white beans, sugar, maple cured bacon, mustard, salt, vinegar, corn starch, onion powder, caramel color, tapioca, maltodextrin, autolyzed yeast extract, bacon fat, natural flavors, natural smoke flavor

Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: ½ cup

Servings Per Container 3.5

Amount Per Serving

Calories 90     Calories from Fat 0

% Daily Value

Total Fat 0g                           0%

Saturated Fat 0g            0%

Trans Fat 0g                0%

Cholesterol 0 mg                   0%

Sodium 230 mg                      9%

Potassium 230 mg                 7%

Total Carbohydrates 13g            4%

Dietary Fiber 4g         16%

Sugars 0g

Protein 8g

Calcium 4%    Iron 10%

Thiamine 6% Riboflavin 4%

Niacin 4%       Phosphorus 15%

Magnesium 8%           Zinc 10%

Ingredients: organic lentils, water, organic tomato puree, sea salt, organic onion, organic garlic, organic bay leaf

Nutrients are listed under calories.  These include fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals.  Fat, cholesterol, and sodium are first because we need to strive for less of these. Current recommendations are to limit saturated fat and avoid trans fat.

Labels must list amounts for calcium, iron, vitamins A and C. The listing of other vitamins and minerals is voluntary unless the product carries a health claim about a specific nutrient. Brand B’s label provides more information than is required by law.

The % daily value is based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. Assuming I need 2000 calories daily, if I ate ½ can of Brand A beans, I’d get a lot of sodium.

Ingredients must be listed by weight in order—starting with the highest. Brand A’s ingredient list has a few items that I’d prefer not to consume, especially compared with those in Brand B. Note that Brand B did not have to add natural flavors because it started as a natural food.  Is adding natural flavor an oxymoron?

For those monitoring sugar intake, note that sugar has many names. High fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey and maple syrup are all sugars.  If corn syrup is the first listed ingredient, then that is what you are eating the most of in that salad dressing.

One guideline I live by is that if I can’t pronounce an ingredient, perhaps I shouldn’t eat it. Maltodextrin found in Brand A is a carbohydrate made from a starch that is absorbed rapidly like glucose. Do I really need that?

When it comes to nutrition, simplicity reigns.  Choose single-ingredient foods are you are likely to avoid additives.  What can be simpler than fresh fruit or vegetables? Dried beans, fish, eggs, nuts or dried fruit don’t have complicated food labels.  Not all single-ingredient food is healthy, such as cane sugar or lard, but you get the picture.

Knowing what is in food can help us make better choices.  Eating a healthy diet is like training to be an athlete. It takes education, preparation, and practice. Spend some time educating yourself, develop a plan of action and make a commitment to yourself. Read food labels. You are worth it.

Further Resources

Information from the FDA about how to read food labels:


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