Label Reading: A how-to and three things we bet you didn’t know!

The supermarket industry can be extremely confusing. What is labeled on the front and back of the products we buy can be deceiving. In fact, a product can state it is a good source of a nutrient, but those words can be loosely used to lure customers to buy their product. Today, we want to provide you with the tools on how to make healthy choices when label reading! Using the Cheerios Protein Cinnamon Almond cereal label as seen below, we will discuss the components of the label from top to bottom.

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Serving size/number of servings per container: It is important to consider the serving size and number of servings per container when eating a product. Also, take into account how much you will actually be eating. For instance, if you eat more than the listed serving size, you need to multiply all of the nutritonals by the number of servings. Some companies will adjust their product’s serving size in order to reach a labeling claim (such as a ‘good’ source of fiber).  Most ready-to- eat cereals have a common portion of 3/4 cup. But, in our cereal label above, the company increased the serving size so they can state specific nutritional claims about their product. If you adjust the serving size to 3/4 cup, the protein and fiber content in the cereal is insignificant, in my opinion.

Calories: Calories are listed per one serving. It’s important to know what your calorie goal for the day is to determine how the product you are eating plays a role into your daily intake. As we talked about on Wednesday, it is also important to take into account the nutrient density of a food, not just calories alone.

% Daily Value: These percentages are based on a 2000 calorie diet, so it’s difficult to use these percentages as a personal measure. However, they do help to visually see the makeup of a product.

Total fat:  The total fat is listed in grams for one serving, but I rarely look at this when examining a food label. I pay more attention to what type of fat is in the product – saturated or unsaturated.  A food can claim it is ‘low fat’ when there is 3 grams or less of fat per serving.

Saturated/unsaturated/ trans fats: Saturated fats are considered the “bad” fat and are found in sources such as animal products, processed foods, etc. Limit saturated fat as much as possible with less than 7% of your total calories per day from saturated fat. Unsaturated fats are considered the “good” fat and you may see various types on a food label – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Trans fats are a form of saturated fat that you want to avoid as much as possible.

Cholesterol:  A daily goal for cholesterol intake is 200mg or less, and a food can claim to be low in cholesterol when there is less than 20 mg of cholesterol and less than 2 gm fat.

Sodium: As briefly discussed in our Chick fil A Quick Bites post, a daily goal for sodium should be 2400 mg per day, and 1 teaspoon of table salt contains 2300 mg!  A low sodium food is 140mg or less of sodium per serving.

Total carbohydrate: The total carbohydrate amount takes into account fiber, sugars, and carbohydrate content. In general, you should strive to have 50-60% of total calories per day coming from carbohydrates (although this can also vary by individual).

Dietary Fiber (Insoluble and Soluble): Fiber is an important component to daily intake. Ideally, a person should strive for 25-35 gm fiber per day depending on your sex. A product can claim it is ‘a good source of fiber’ with just 2.5 gm fiber per serving and ‘high fiber’ with 5 gm or more of fiber per serving. If you take a look at the Cheerios link above, the company is able to claim that a serving of this cereal is a ‘good source of fiber’ with 3 grams of fiber per serving. When looking at a food label, aim to choose a product with at least 5 grams fiber per serving to keep you fuller longer.

Sugars: Currently, sugars are not broken down into natural sugars or added sugars. So, it is important to look at the ingredient list to determine if any sugar has been added to the product. According to the American Heart Association, it is recommended that men have no more than 150 calories (or 9 teaspoons) added sugar and women have no more than 100 calories (or 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day. A can of soda has 8 teaspoons of sugar alone! But unfortunately, food labels do not list sugar in teaspoons, so for examining a food label, remember that for each gram of sugar, there are 4 calories. In our example label, a serving of this cereal contains 16 grams of sugar (or 64 calories from sugar) and by looking at the ingredient list, you can tell that all of the sugar is added. With just one serving of this cereal, you consume half or more of your recommended upper limit for added sugar, depending on your sex! Yikes!


Protein: Grams of protein per serving are important to take into account, especially for a breakfast food and/ or snack. Daily protein needs can vary based on medical history, exercise frequency, age, sex, etc.

Vitamins and Minerals: Vitamins and minerals are listed by % daily value. It’s important to know that a product is considered a low source of a nutrient when there is less than 5% daily value and a high source when it is more than 20%.

Ingredient lists: Ingredients are listed by most prevalent ingredient to the least prevalent. In fact, the first five or so ingredients tend to make up greater than 75% of the product. So, if your first few ingredients are various forms of sugar, you can assume that the product is a high source of added sugar.

Now, here are three things that we bet you did not know about food labels!

Trans fat requirements on food labels: Per the FDA, food companies are allowed to state that a product has 0 gm trans fat when there is less than 0.5 gm trans fat/serving. If this is the case, but you see the words ‘partially hydrogenated’ in the ingredient list, then the product contains trans fats. And, remember, if you were to consume more than a listed serving size, then you are now consuming additional trans fats.

Wheat labeling requirements: Just because a product claims to include whole grains, it may still contain refined grains. In fact, a plain wheat product without whole grains is essentially white flour dyed brown. So, when choosing any type of grain, look through the ingredient list for the words ‘whole wheat’ or ‘whole grain’ and make sure words such as ‘enriched unbleached flour’ are avoided. To be safe, look for the Whole Grains Council stamp that indicates 100% whole grains on the front of your package. And when choosing a cereal or breakfast bar, consider ‘the five rule’- a serving has 5 grams or more of fiber, 5 grams or more of protein and 5 grams of sugar or less. So, our cereal above would not meet the requirements of ‘the five rule.’

Buzz words that have no meaning: You may see some products that have claims such as ‘natural’ or ‘made with real fruit juice.’ There are actually no FDA regulations on these words and are used to entice the customer. It’s important to remember to always look through the ingredient list to determine what is actually in your product!

What do you find confusing about food labels? Do you typically read nutrition labels before purchasing products at the grocery store? We hope this guide has helped some!



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