Demystifying a Food Label

Posted 4/14/21

By Nicole DePalma MS, LMT Sometimes, looking at a food label can make your eyes cross! You feel like you need a PhD in Label-Speak to get through, and then give up, and just “buy the can”, or …

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Demystifying a Food Label


By Nicole DePalma MS, LMT

Sometimes, looking at a food label can make your eyes cross! You feel like you need a PhD in Label-Speak to get through, and then give up, and just “buy the can”, or package, or whatever a food is contained in, and head for the check-out register.

But if we take a deep breath, and take a look at some of the components of a food label, we can figure out what some of the “food label language” means, and how that knowledge can help you make better food choices when you shop.

O.k., here we go: I’m looking at the food label on a 8.5 ounce (small size) can of peas and carrots. The first thing I run into is the serving size, which in this case is the whole can. Pay attention to the serving size. In a larger container, there may be several servings in that container, however, the nutrition facts on the rest of the label are going to be based on only one serving of that food. Often times, when there are multiple servings in a container, the serving size will be listed, for example, one cup, or one tablespoon, etc. Once and awhile, take a moment to actually measure out a serving size of the food you’re going to prepare, and you may be surprised to see what the actual size of that serving really looks like!

Now, per serving of my peas and carrots, I see that there are 110 calories in that serving, but I’m a little not happy with what I see listed in the ingredients. My can tells me I just bought peas and carrots, but the ingredient list tells me I just bought peas and carrots, water, sugar and salt! Whoa! I only thought I was getting peas and carrots! Sometimes the ingredient list of foods is overwhelming. Highly processed foods have a list of multi-syllable words, and the list is so long, and in such small print that you can either get yourself a magnifying glass, or be prepared to spend a good deal of time shopping so you know exactly what you’ll be eating when you buy any given food. Before we go any further, right here and right now, I’m going to encourage you to shop for “whole foods”. An apple is a whole food, A head of lettuce is a whole food. These items are processed as little as possible, and are free of artificial substances or additives as much as possible. You are definitely not going to see a scary list of stuff as the ingredients of a carrot or a pea! One other term I’d like to throw in here is “whole grain”. Whole grains contain the three parts of a grain, the endosperm, germ, and bran. Processed grains only contain the endosperm. Maybe this is one of the causes of a lack of fiber in our diets these days. Simply by swapping processed grains for whole grains, we’ve just made a better food choice for our health!

Moving on in my food table, I see total fat, trans fats and saturated fat. Really? Isn’t fat…fat? Well…First I see that my peas and carrots have a total of 1% fat per serving (my whole can). Then I see that for both saturated and trans fats there is 0%, so this is a good thing. Trans fats are the heart attack maker, if you will. This is the stuff that we can say is “one polymer away from plastic”…meant as a joke, but not so funny. Saturated fat isn’t much better, but we do need fat in our bodies to function well. The good fats we find in healthy oils for example, assist in providing us fuel, and protecting our organs and brain. Based on age or gender, we need anywhere from 53 – 93 grams of fat a day. A gram of fat is 9 calories.

Now I see cholesterol. This is a lipid (fat) that circulates in the blood system, created by the liver. Yes, we need this, too, but there can be way too much of it in processed foods. Good cholesterol (LDLs) can help maintain a healthy heart and organs, but not so good cholesterol (HDLs) can be a poor heart’s nightmare, clogging up arteries! My peas and carrots don’t have any cholesterol…whew! My liver usually can make enough for me, thank you very much.

Now, sodium. there are 580 mgs of sodium in my one serving, or 25% of my nutrients…I don’t like this. One quarter of my nutrients from my peas and carrots is basically… salt. Remember when I mentioned that added salt is on the list of ingredients of my can? Nope! I’m going to start to look for, and buy, salt free foods. There’s really enough salt in a healthy diet that doesn’t require me to be adding to that number. Ideally, we would need 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, and no more than 2,300 milligrams per day to keep me healthy. This is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon! The average American diet now contains 3,400 milligrams a day of sodium…yikes…over twice as much as needed! A food that has 5% or less of a nutrient in it is considered a low nutrient food, and a high nutrient content would be considered at 20% of that nutrient, or higher. My innocent little peas and carrots have 25%!

On to carbohydrates (carbs). I have 19 grams, or 1% of my nutrition per serving coming from my veggie serving. Carbs are basically sugars and starches that are broken down into a simple sugar called glucose in the body. This fuels our body’s cells. It’s recommended to have between 900 – 1,300 grams per day of carbs. So if 1% in my veggie can is equal to only that 1% of a total of 900 grams that I need, I’d better look to more carb-rich food that can help me meet my daily allowance of that nutrient. Within that carb information, I also see fiber and sugar. I have 6 grams of fiber, or 21% of my daily allowance, and total added sugars are 12 grams, or 16 % of my daily allowance. Fiber is a portion of a plant that can’t be totally broken down by the body’s enzymes, and we need around 25 – 30 grams a day of fiber to assist with health digestion. Veggies are a very good source of fiber, but I’ll need to up my total from what this serving provides. Added sugars? Why? I only want peas and carrots! Its recommended that we have no more than 100 -150 calories a day of discretionary sugar. A gram of sugar is 4 calories. I have 8 grams of added sugar in my can, and that’s 32 calories of sugar. I’m going to start looking to either peas and carrots in a can that are only peas and carrots, or I’m going to head right over to the produce aisle, and get the real deal without the extra bells and whistles!

Finally, protein. Protein contains the amino acid building blocks of our muscles, tissues, hair, nails, collagen, etc. It’s recommended to have anywhere between 46 to 56 grams of protein a day. I have 6 grams (a gram of protein is 4 calories) in my veggie serving. I’ll need about 40 more grams to come from other sources to meet my requirement.

At the bottom of food labels, you’ll usually find a list of vitamins and minerals in a serving. Minerals are naturally occurring substances that are essential for building bones, making hormones, regulating heart beat, and supporting brain and muscle function. Vitamins are needed for cell function, and the body’s growth and development. My little can has 4% of calcium, 10% of iron, and 4% of potassium in it. This isn’t great, but given the size of the can, again I find that veggies will offer more bang for the serving that some processed foods will.

Finding your way around food labels can assist you in creating a healthier diet for yourself and your loved ones. Grocery stores are getting better at displaying nutrition information for produce. Some stores have a nutritionist on hand, or knowledgeable people working within each food department that can answer questions, or help guide you toward wise food choices.

I pulled information for this article from the Mayo Clinic, Web MD, and American Heart Associations’ websites. If you’d care to take a deeper dive into nutrition. clinics and hospitals will have experts on staff to help demystify as well. Community education classes and the good ol’ library also offer a wealth of knowledge. Knowledge is power, and we do have the power to build a healthier diet and lifestyle for ourselves! Cheers and eat well!