Originally published in November-December 2000

Why Is It So Important to Read Food Labels?

Reading a food label takes a little know-how.  Given the more than 3,000 additives used in processed foods, it is a challenge to fully understand the risks and benefits of all the ingredients that may appear on food’s label.  However, unless you are going to avoid every packaged or processed product, you need to have some basic information on the how-tos of label reading.


Food Label Categories


Let’s look at the key categories of information on a food label and discuss what can be learned from them.

Serving Size is the calculation upon which all the other numbers on the food label are based.  The food manufacturer often tries to limit the serving size so that the amount of calories or fat will appear smaller, especially in foods such as chips or cookies.  For example, they might declare a serving as one or two cookies or an ounce of potato or corn chips when, in reality, the consumer is likely to consume much more at any one time.

Calories is the figure that represents the number of calories in one serving.  A calorie is unit of energy or heat that your body generates from the food you eat.  The body requires calories to run.  It converts carbohydrates, protein, and fats (the macronutrients from which we get calories) into glucose, the essential fuel for our system.  if we take in an excess number of calories, especially sugars and starches, they are stored in the body as fat, and this can lead to weight gain and obesity unless we exercise sufficiently to burn them.  Being chronically overweight can be a primary cause of illness and chronic disease. 

Calories from Fat is listed right after the number of calories, and signifies the total number of fat calories per serving.  This important information for people who are watching their fat intake and calories.  The kind of fat you eat also matters.  Much of the fat we consume from processed foods, including saturated and hydrogenated fats, lacks the essential fatty acids our body needs.  And typically, eating foods with higher amounts of these unhealthy fats is linked to heart disease and stroke.

Cholesterol indicates the number of milligrams of cholesterol per serving.  This figure reflects the presence of a particular animal fat (sterol) in the products.  Food cholesterol is different from body cholesterols.  There are both helpful and problematic types of cholesterol in the body, namely HDL (beneficial high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (potentially harmful, low-density lipoprotein).

Sodium represents the amount of sodium in each serving.  (Sodium is one of the minerals in salt, which is sodium chloride.)  Many processed foods, such as crackers, canned soups, packaged meats, and potato or other chips have fairly high amounts of sodium.  The Total Daily Value acceptable for sodium is 2,500 mg; this amount can be quite easy to surpass, especially if you have a taste for salty foods or add salt to your meals.

Total Carbohydrates signifies the number of grams of carbohydrate in each serving.  Carbohydrates include starches, sugars, and dietary fiber.  These contribute 4 calories of energy per gram.  Carbohydrates include simple sugars such as glucose, fructose (the natural sugar found in fruits), complex starches in whole wheat and brown rice, and dietary fiber.  The Total Daily Value for carbohydrate appears to be about 300 grams (about 1,200 calories and nearly 60% of average diet).  And the label may list the percentage of that amount.

Sugars refer to the number of grams of simple sugar in each serving of the product.  Multiplying by 4 calories per gram provides the total calories from sugars.  Sugar content refers not only to sweeteners added to the product, but also to sugars that occur naturally, such as fructose in fruits and lactose in milk.  This is one of the key areas to monitor in order to maintain good health.  Limiting refined sugar intake and lowering all simple sugars is very important.  Also, remember to limit even sugars from juices and natural sweeteners, while increasing your complex carbohydrate intake.  The majority of the simple sugars in our diet should come from fresh fruits.

Protein indicates the number of grams of protein in each serving.  Protein is an essential nutrient that comes primarily from animal tissues, legumes (beans and tofu), nuts and seeds, and dairy products.  We can also obtain complete proteins by combining plants, such as rice or corn with beans.

Other Nutrients indicates some of the essential vitamins and minerals.  Most food labels include four items: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.  It is important to remember that individual requirements for nutrients are unique to each body, and that optimum levels of intake are often higher than government standards for the minimal requirements to prevent deficiency.

List of Ingredients on the Label The food’s contents are listed in order by quantity — the largest ingredient in the product is listed first, the smallest last.  This is an important point.  If for example a fruit juice’s listed ingredients are sugars, water, & fruit concentrate, then it contains mostly just sugar and water! 

So read the labels.