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Understanding food labels

This is an excerpt from Fitness: Steps to Success by Nancy Naternicola.

Food Labels

The can in the grocery store says "tuna in water." However, the list of ingredients says tuna, water, soy, carrots, and celery! In 1990 the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was passed, and the USDA and FDA were in charge of deciding what information you need to know about the food you eat. Every food and beverage product must contain the following information:

  • Nutrition facts are quantities of protein, fat (saturated, unsaturated, and trans), carbohydrate (sugar and fiber), vitamins, and minerals for one serving.
  • Ingredients are contents listed in descending order.
  • Serving size is what constitutes one serving.
  • Product name.
  • Manufacturer's name and address.
  • Weight, measure, or count of the product.

Finding out whether a food product is healthy for you may be more difficult if you don't understand the product's label. Many times the claims on the front of the package are deceptive because they are not monitored as closely as the nutrition label on the back and may be misleading. You will see "fat-free," "no added sugar," "natural," "lite," and "helps your immune system" on labels to entice you to purchase the food item, but it's not clear what these labels really mean. We'll take a closer look at what some of these claims mean (per serving) so you will be better informed when you are pushing that cart through the market. See figure 9.3 for a sample food label.

Fat-Free, Sugar-Free, Zero Calories

This may be one of the most misleading topics because many people think that if a food is fat free or sugar free, it's healthy. If a food item has this label, the fat and sugar must be less than 0.5 gram per serving, and calorie free must be no more than 5 calories per serving. It's important to understand that just because a food item is fat free it may be very high in sugar and calories. If it claims to be sugar free, it still may be in high in fat and calories. Look at the total calories per serving to decide whether the food is healthy for your diet plan.

Low Fat, Low Sugar, Low Calorie

This type of label on a product means it contains less than 3 grams of fat and less than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving. To be considered low calorie, the food must contain fewer than 40 calories per serving. This is where the manufacturer's front label can be deceiving, because the claim will be "no trans fat" on the front, but the actual nutrition label may indicate that saturated or unsaturated fat content is high, and may legally contain up to 0.5 gram of trans fat. If you eat more than one serving of this "no-trans-fat" food, the trans fat can add up.


Not surprisingly, this label has no real definition and it can be whatever the manufacturer wants it to be! According to the FDA, as long as the product has no artificial flavors, added color, or synthetic substances, it can be called natural. Foods such as yogurt, granola bars, nondairy cheese, and honey that you thought were healthy may not be. The purple color and flavor in yogurt may not be from blueberries! And the 100 percent natural jar of honey you just bought home isn't technically honey due to so many levels of processing that removes the natural pollen. Purchase honey from a local beekeeper or at a farmer's market for truly natural honey.

What about the granola bar - the staple of many fitness fanatics for a snack or after-workout food? Many of these bars, sometimes called energy bars or protein bars, contain an ingredient made from wood pulp or cotton (called cellulose) to up the fiber content. They also contain processed sweeteners. They may not be healthy for you at all! Make sure you read not only the nutrition label but the ingredients as well.


A food labeled as organic is not the same as being 100 percent natural. If a food is labeled as organic, it must pass specific USDA guidelines, which state that animal products must not have antibiotics or growth hormones, and plants must be grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. You will notice that the levels of organic range from 70 to 100 percent, depending on how they were grown.


This label means not only that the food must be unprocessed or raw, but that it has never been heated or frozen. Although this may sound like a great food source, this label doesn't mean the food was just picked. You never know how long it has been in transit to the store or how long it has been sitting on the shelf. This may increase the surface bacteria on these foods, so make sure you wash all fresh foods before preparing or eating them.

You can use a nutrition label to help you choose foods that are healthy for your body. Don't simply look at the total grams of carbohydrate in foods; rather, choose those that are high in fiber and low in sugar. See what type of fat (unsaturated, saturated, or trans fat) is in the food.

Look at the list of ingredients to see if sugar or fat is one of the first four ingredients listed. If so, this food probably is not the best choice. Also look for sugar alcohols, which are actually neither sugar nor alcohol but a chemical structure that sweetens food and can cause intestinal problems. Sugar alcohols usually end in - ol, such as sorbitol and mannitol.

How to read a food label.

Success Check

  • Name three ways food labels can help you choose a healthy food product.
  • What type of fat should you avoid when purchasing a food product?
More Excerpts From Fitness: Steps to Success



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