How To Read Food Nutrition Labels

In this article we will look at the food nutrition label and ingredient list and see how they work!

All packaged food (aside from items like wine, some produce, etc.) in America includes an ingredient and nutrition label. 

These are required and regulated by law.

Serving as the gateway to the consumer (you!) knowing what is in the product and understanding how it can affect you and your health. 

From how nourishing it is and how well it contributes to your dietary needs, to ingredients that you may want or need to stay away from.

These nutrition labels empower you to be able to make more healthy selections and match your food to the lifestyle you want to live. 

Food nutrition labels can help you make food work for you.

Here’s how to read the food nutrition labels:

1-Serving Size:

Every packaged food has included on its food label the serving size and number of servings. 

A package of bread rolls for example, may have 8 rolls, but a serving size is a single roll. 

The serving size and sometimes the servings per package are given in varying quantities, which may be by the cup, ounce, gram, or whole unit (like per bread roll). 

The real significance here is knowing how much of any given nutrient is in a complete package and realizing many convenience packages are several servings, not just one. 

For example a bottle of soda, say 24oz, will say on its nutrition label that it is 100 calories and 28 grams of sugar per 8oz serving, but that’s three servings per bottle, so not just 100 calories, but 300 calories and 84 grams of sugar! 

So to know what you’re really getting, both to avoid over eating certain nutrients, and to get enough of a needed nutrient, you need to look at the serving sizes of each given food.

2-Nutrient Contents and Daily Values:

The nutritional content labels include all the main macro and micro-nutrients a food contains.

Where macro nutrients are where we get our energy, and micro-nutrients are things like vitamins and minerals that we still need, in addition to the total calories a food item has. 

Do first note that what the nutrition labels show you is always per servingnot total unless the serving is the entire package.

Each nutrition label begins by telling you the total calories per serving.

Remember, each package may have several servings, for example a box of macaroni and cheese often has as much as 7-800 calories per box!), as well as the percentage of those calories that come from the fat it contains. 

Approximately 9 calories come from each gram of fat the food contains, and about 4 calories for each gram of protein or carbohydrates.

Also included are always (as long as the item has nutrients, certain items like wine, coffee, and water do not and so do not have to), in addition to the calories, the total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and protein

Often times also are potassium, fiber, sugar, and numerous vitamins and minerals (even if none are present of that specific nutrient). 

Sometimes mono and poly-unsaturated fats, sugar alcohols, and ‘other carbohydrates’ are sometimes listed.

With each of these nutrients is listed how much is contained per serving, though they are listed in different units of measurement. 

Calories are an isolated measurement of how much energy is contained, but the macro-nutrients are usually measured in grams (g).

While many of the micro nutrients are often recorded in milligrams (mg) or micro grams (mcg). 

Most of these nutrients, but not all, also have how much of the daily value is met by eating each serving, recorded in percentages to the right of each nutrient.

But what is the daily value? 

This is a value that roughly and generally is supposed to fit the needs of the average healthy American adult, based on a 2000 calorie diet. [1]

You must not mistake this, however, for an ultimate guide of what you need. 

Based on age, gender, health, activity level, and individual metabolisms, the caloric needs can range from 1700 calories all the way to 4000 (specific nutrient needs range widely as well) in the normal populace, but these are general guidelines. 

There are even many caloric needs calculators but these do not factor in individual variations. 

For example, I am a 220 lb male martial artist, and while I’m told that I need over 4000 calories a day, my body usually needs closer to 2500. 

Daily values are a good way to get a rough idea of the range you should be shooting for, but is far from exact. 

The best use here is to find out how many nutrients are included in the food and compare that to the needs you find you specifically need (we will address this elsewhere).

3-Food Nutrition Labels : Ingredient List

The ingredient list comes at the end/bottom of the nutrition label, and in the United States lists the ingredients from most prevalent (by weight) to least in descending order. 

These include whole ingredients, such as “Wheat Flour” and constituent items such as “Crisp Rice (Rice Flour, Sugar, Malt, Salt). 

These lists are generally fairly complete, and help us know what ingredients are in it that we might want to avoid (such as meat or dairy products, or possible allergens and added chemicals).

Or ingredients we want (such as organic ingredients, or the degree of processing involved). 

This can show us the difference from a highly processed food item that contains three kinds of artificial food coloring chemicals, preservatives, added MSG (monosodium glutamate).

Refined and genetically modified ingredients, and 30 or more total ingredients, and an organic food made from sprouted grains, no preservatives or additives, and a total of 4 ingredients. 

This is truly an important part of food labeling.

4-What has to be in the ingredient list?

Some items are listed in an ambiguous and non-specific way, such as ‘natural’ or ‘artificial flavors,” and “spices.”

To protect the means and methods of food companies, the government has not required these to always be specifically stated. 

Generally this is not a problem, as the main 8 allergens are listed, and chemicals used for preserving food and other active ingredients are listed, with their purpose in the food item, such as “preservative,” “to retard spoilage,” “a mold inhibitor,” “to help protect flavor,” or “to promote color retention.”

“INGREDIENTS: Dried Bananas, Sugar, Salt, and Ascorbic Acid to Promote Color Retention.”

Do note, though, that only 8 allergens of over 160 foods known to cause allergic reactions in some people are required to be listed, and some other ingredients may not be shown. 

One prime example in the past was a company selling food specifically to Hindu people, but including beef products, which is generally very against the Hindi religious views. 

This was labeled as ‘natural ingredients.’

If you need more information, most products contain customer service contact information to ask more questions if you feel the need.

Also companies are not yet required to tell you if an ingredient is genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO).

Meaning that typically the only time we know whether an item is or isn’t is when a health food company pays extra to get these quality ingredients and so lets you know that it is not GMO. 

Companies that do use genetically modified items will seldom inform you of it.

While not in the ingredient list itself, some companies often label their package to say that their food is “high in” or “good source of” of a particular nutrient, like calcium

There are regulations on this kind of labeling. 

To be labeled as a “good source” each serving must contain 10-19% of the DV (daily value). 

To be labeled as “high” it must be over 20%. 

Items without a daily %, like Omega 3 fatty acids, cannot be labeled in this fashion in the U.S.

5-Organic:

Organic foods are a widely growing sector in Western food industry and consumption, a large step back towards less processing and less chemical/non-natural additives in our food. 

This is part of a health movement to get us away from the unfortunate and undesired side effects of processed and treated foods. 

Organic foods are not legally required to be labeled as such, but as these are positive elements of a food item, food growers and sellers generally are happy to label their products organic to gain more sales by health conscious people.

There are three classifications of food labeling for Organic ingredients and food items. 

“100% organic” ingredients or items are those which are not genetically altered, sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, sulfites, or contain any other non-natural ingredient. 

“Organic” must contain 95% organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt, and cannot contain sulfites. 

“Made with Organic [specified Ingredient(s) or food group(s)]” requires at least 70% organic ingredients. 

May not contain sulfites except for wine.

“Some Organic Ingredients” Contains less than 70% organic ingredients.

6-Allergens:

One of the most important parts of a nutrition label for many people, are the list of ingredients and potential allergens contained in the food. 

Some food allergens are relatively minor and cause only discomfort, but some can lead to severe symptoms and death.

So even if you aren’t allergic yourself, knowing the main allergens that may be in the foods you eat or serve are important if you are cooking for others or sharing. 

There are over 160 food items that can cause allergic reactions to those who are susceptible, however there are only eight that are required by U.S. law to be posted on food nutrition labels.

These foods include:

  • 1: Milk
  • 2: Eggs
  • 3: Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
  • 4: Crustacean shellfish (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp)
  • 5: Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
  • 6: Peanuts
  • 7: Wheat
  • 8: Soybeans

Some of these ingredients are particularly difficult for many people, such as wheat and soybeans, because they are in fact in so many foods today. 

For celiacs (people with severe potentially life threatening gluten allergies), this can create severe food exclusions just because of worrying about food contamination. 

Some severe celiacs are so sensitive that entirely different sets of cooking equipment and spaces are needed to avoid contamination. 

Food nutrition labels are to help deal with this and avoid food dangers. 

Peanuts and shellfish are also other often serious or potentially fatal food allergies.

So because of this, in the ingredient list these allergens must be listed, but also foods derived from them. 

For example “lecithin (soy),” “flour (wheat),” and “whey (milk).” 

Also at the bottom of the ingredients list we may often see a list of potential allergens of contaminants: “Contains Wheat, Milk, and Soy.”

Such other warnings may be listed as “May be processed on equipment that also comes into contact with nuts,” and so on. 

Unfortunately none of these laws are definitively helpful to celiacs, as celiacs are also triggered by gluten found in rye and barley as well as wheat.

These two additional grains and items derived from them not being legally required to be listed due to allergy regulations.