How to Read Food Labels Correctly

Food Labels

Understanding food labels is critical to knowing exactly what it is that you are putting into your body. On the surface of things it may seem like a simple task but keep in mind that food manufacturers want you to buy their product and one of its main selling points in a health-conscious world is its nutritional value. So, it stands to reason that they will make their product’s food labels seem as nutritious as possible.

How to Read Food Labels

I’m going to show you how to do something that the majority of Americans do incorrectly: Read food labels. You must know how to read food labels to accurately determine how many protein, fat, and carb calories you are actually getting per serving.

Getting the correct quantity of protein and carbs is quite easy. You simply take the gram amount listed in the amount per servings column and then multiply that number by 4 (one gram of protein or carbohydrates equals 4 calories). This will give you the total number of protein or carbs per serving. See the example below:

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 1 Scoop or 3 Tablespoons (25.5 grams)
Servings Per Container: 35 Amount
Per Serving Calories 100 Total Fat 1 g Cholesterol 15 mg Total Carbohydrates 2.5 g Dietary Fiber 0 g Sugar 2 g Protein 20 g Sodium 50 mg Calcium 50 mg Magnesium 100 mg Potassium 80 mg One scoop of Precision Protein powder will give you 10 calories of carbs (2.5 x 4) per serving, and 80 calories of protein (20 x 4) per serving.

Getting the TRUE fat content is a little more tricky. Because most Americans are so fat conscious, food manufacturers try to give their products more appeal by making them low fat (or at least appear so). When the label says “low fat”, that does not necessarily mean that it is true. When a product says “low fat” it is usually referring to the total fat calorie amount per serving.

So, if a product has one 1 gram of fat, it has a total of 9 calories of fat per serving (one gram of fat equals 9 calories) and can be labeled low fat. Seems ok, right? Well, we don’t know yet, since this is not the complete way to determine the actual fat content of the product. To really know if the product is low in fat, you must take into account the TOTAL number of calories per serving than the food provides.

So, if the product has 9 calories of fat per serving and the total calorie amount per serving is 18 calories, then the product is 50% fat per serving. Would anyone who wants low-fat foods knowingly eat food that is 50% fat? Of course not. But people do it all the time because they see it labeled as “low-fat”.

To get the true fat amount you must take into account the serving size. Fortunately, this product is 100 calories per serving, so that means that each serving is 9% fat. This product is actually low in fat, low in carbs, and very high in protein. Here is another example:

Kraft Original Parmesan Cheese
Nutrition Facts Amount
Per Serving Calories 20 Total Fat 1.5 g A regular 8oz container of Kraft Original Parmesan Cheese says on the label that it has 1.5 grams of fat per serving.

Seems pretty low, right? Well, let’s see. To find out the true fat content, first, multiply the number of fat grams (1.5) by 9 to get the number of fat calories per serving (13.5 calories). Then divide that number by the total calories per serving (Calories per serving is 20). This will give you the percentage of fat you get for each serving of this product. After this calculation, I learn that this cheese is approximately 68% fat. This is not a good product for a low-fat diet!

Here’s the formula again:

  1. (Total grams of fat per serving) x (9) = Total fat calories per serving
  2. (Total fat calories per serv.) / (calories per serving) = percentage of fat calories per serving

Thanks to a new rule by the FDA to help stop label deception, all food labels should have a new calculation named “calories from fat”. This is the first calculation above. Then, to get the percentage of fat for each serving, simply divide that number by the calories per serving (step #2 above).

Food Label Terms

The FDA has created rules regarding the use of certain terms on food labels. To understand what the food actually contains, you must know what these terms mean.

Calorie Terms

  • “Low Calorie” = Contains no more than 40 calories per serving.
  • “Reduced Calorie” = Contains 25% fewer calories per serving than a regular product.
  • “Calorie-Free” = Contains less than 5 calories per serving.

Sodium Terms

  • “Low Sodium” = Containing 140mg of sodium or less per serving.
  • “Very Low Sodium” = Containing 35mg of sodium or less per serving.

Fat Terms (non-meat)

  • “Fat-Free” = Contains no more than 0.5g of fat per serving.
  • “Low Cholesterol” = Contains no more than 20g of cholesterol and less than 2g of saturated fat per serving.
  • “Low Fat” = Contains no more than 3g of fat per serving.

Fat Terms (meat products)

  • “Lean” = Contains no more than 10g of fat, no more than 4.5g of which is saturated fat, and also contains less than 95mg of cholesterol per serving.
  • “Extra Lean” = Contains no more than 5g of fat, no more than 2g of which is saturated fat, and also contains less than 95mg of cholesterol per serving.

Other Terms

  • “Free”, “No”, “Zero” = Containing no amount or a trivial amount.
  • “Sugar-Free” = Containing less than 0.5g per serving.
  • “Good Source” = Provides 10%-19% of Daily Value per serving.
  • “Light” = Can mean one of three things:
    a) provides 1/3 fewer calories or 1/2 the amount of fat as a regular product per serving.
    b) if it’s a “low fat” or “low-calorie” food, it can be called “light” if it provides 1/2 the normal fat present.
    c) can be referring to the actual color of the food itself.
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