Food Label Blues

Learn to decode confusing labels.
by Amy Vergin

The most typical move a consumer will make at the grocery store is to pick a product off the shelf, flip it over, and scan the nutritional information. Unfortunately, this is where the inquiry ends. Buyers simply don’t know what they are looking for. Between the ingredients, label claims, and percent daily values, it’s hard to know if you should consume the product at hand. Here’s a go-to guide to help break down the confusing jargon.

History of the Label

First things first. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created food labels in 1990 under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) so that consumers would know what was in each product. Recently, it has become common for foods to have another “breakdown” of numbers on the front of the package as well, usually dealing with grams of fat, calories, and that it is a “good source of” some nutrient.

In 2003, to help consumers choose heart-healthy foods, the FDA mandated that trans-fat must be listed on all food labels under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2004, the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act passed, requiring labels to note if the product had been in contact with any common food allergies such as peanuts, shellfish, dairy, and wheat.

Almost every product sold in stores has to have a nutritional label on it, with the exception of raw produce and fish, or whatever is considered to be a “conventional” food item according to the FDA.

Nutrition Fact Breakdown

The place people look first is the nutrition fact chart. This chart is the focal point on the back or side of the product.

Let’s take a look at calories. A calorie is one unit of food energy. Most people have heard a trainer, doctor, nutritionist, or a health-related webpage explain that there is an allotted amount of calories every individual should consume daily, depending on activity level, age, and sex. Carbohydrates, total fat, and protein are what make up the calories in any given product. Each gram of fat represents eight calories, while each gram of carbohydrate or protein represents four calories. The best way to see if the label is giving you the correct caloric amount is to add these numbers up! Sometimes numbers are rounded and sometimes they are far from what the label says.

Just like calories can be broken down, carbohydrates can be separated into simple carbs and complex carbs. Simple carbs, or sugars, are believed to be bad, while complex carbs are generally thought of as good for our body. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The human body is built to have a steady supply of sugar (glucose) to help fuel it. Simple carbs are easily broken down and blood sugar levels will spike shortly after consumption of a meal. The excess blood sugar then turns to fat since the body has no use for it. Complex carbs are more difficult for the body to break down, delaying absorption, thus creating the steady supply of blood sugar that is needed.

With that said, some simple carbs can be good for our bodies if taken in moderation. Fruit is the best example. Although high in sugar, fruit is also high in fiber and nutrients. Likewise, refined complex carbohydrates are not good for the body and should be avoided. The difference between refined complex carbs and whole complex carbs is that the fiber (the bran) and the nutrients (the germ) have been stripped away making the once complex carbs into a simple sugar that our body can quickly and easily digest. So remember, whole complex carbs, like whole grains, are better for you; simple carbs found in fruits are acceptable in moderation.

Most of the time, products have too much of one thing and not enough of another. Regular cola drinks contain about 39 grams of sugar but no one really knows what that means. However, as you imagine a sugar cube that people would put in their coffee, remember that there are almost 10 of those exact cubes in your 12-ounce soda. Nobody tells you that these grams add up to some shocking amounts.

On the other hand, a can of soda has zero grams of protein. Since protein is an essential nutrient for cell structure, metabolism, the immune system, and the formation or red blood cells, our diet must be diverse enough to cover the nutrients we need.

Percent Daily Values

Nutrition facts end up pairing with what is called the Percent Daily Values (PDV). These percentages that follow every category on the label give the consumer an idea of how much of their daily intake of a certain nutrient is allowed. For example, when you look at a can of soup that has 870 mg of sodium, the can will say that you’ve ingested 36 percent of your daily salt intake. And that is in just one serving or ½ cup. There are actually 2.5 servings, which means that if you eat the entire can, you will have had around 90 percent of your DV. Remember to watch the serving size; this will help determine how much should be eaten and how many servings are within the packaged item. In most cases, products contain two or more servings, and the servings may be smaller than you assume. The best way to keep your servings correctly portioned is to physically portion your food out. Use a measuring cup, or even a food scale if the serving amounts are in grams or ounces.

The standard PDV is based on a 2,000 calorie diet but percentages will change according to the specific amount of calories each person is supposed to consume. Rethink what that nutritionist or webpage told you. If you are a female on a 1,500 calorie diet, then an item that has 20 percent PDV for a 2,000 calorie diet would be 26.7 percent of your DV for your diet.

If the product has 20 percent or more for the PDV in categories such as sodium, total fat, sugars, or carbohydrates, it means the product contains too much of that nutrient and probably should be replaced by a healthier item. It’s important to stay balanced and continuously take in the nutrients the body needs to function properly.


One of the best ways to understand what comprises your food is to look at the ingredients. It flat out gives you the information about the foods, spices, and chemicals that are put into the product, which will help any consumer keep track of what they are ingesting. For example, let’s compare two different soups such as Healthy Valley Organic Cream of Chicken versus Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup. It says, directly off the label, that the can of Healthy Valley Organic soup contains:

Filtered water, organic cream (from milk), organic rice flour, organic chicken, organic soy protein, organic rice starch, salt, organic chicken broth, natural flavors (includes celery), organic canola oil, yeast extract, organic onion powder, organic garlic powder, organic parsley, organic white pepper, organic thyme, organic bay leaves, organic turmeric (for color).

Now when you compare that with the Campbell’s label, you get this:

Chicken Stock, Water, Vegetable Oil, Modified Food Starch, Wheat Flour, Cream (Milk), Contains Less Than 2 percent Of: Salt, Dehydrated Cooked Chicken, Soy Protein Concentrate, Monosodium Glutamate, Chicken Fat, Yeast Extract, Flavoring, Beta Carotene for Color, Chicken Flavor, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil, Butter (Milk).

Part of the FDA’s law is that within the ingredients, the ingredient most used must be listed first. In the example, the main ingredient in Campbell’s soup is chicken stock, and the main ingredients in Healthy Valley Organic are filtered water and organic cream.

The confusion happens when words like monosodium glutamate, partially hydrogenated, and high fructose corn syrup appear. Just remember that high fructose corn syrup is found in processed foods and is used as a sweetener. Health concerns have been made about this ingredient claiming it causes obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. “Monosodium glutamate” stands for MSG, which is a food additive that helps enhance the taste of the overall meal. MSG can also be known as glutamic acid, yeast extract, or even “natural flavors.” Side effects from MSG could be anything from a headache or numbness to overall weakness, but only if you are sensitive to the additive.

Decoding Label Claims

A final aspect to consider is what the label claims about the product it is encompassing. The American Heart Association created an entire list of common phrases like “cholesterol free” and “good source of fiber” and so on. But what do these really mean? When something says it is cholesterol free, what the label is saying is that there is less than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2 grams of saturated fat. And a good source of fiber says that there is somewhere between 2.5 grams to 4.9 grams of fiber in one serving—you’re aiming for 20 grams of fiber for women or 30 grams for men daily. A common term on a label is that “reduced fat,” which means that there is at least 25 percent less fat than the original product. If you are interested in learning more about label claims, visit

Now fully armed with the knowledge of labels, feel free to waltz in to that grocery store and show those food labels who is boss. And when you stand next to that person pulling the “flip and stare” move, laugh to yourself knowing that you have been educated and now have a better understanding of what you’re about to buy.



Camelbak, Nalgene, Intak, and other brands have jumped on the bandwagon of ensuring consumers that their water bottles are BPA free (Bisphenol A) with logos etched in the plastic. Have these same standards crossed over to other products in the labeling industry? Unfortunately not; while the FDA is keeping nutrition labels on a strict regimen there are no real standards for labeling the product's container. Here are some BPA facts to help with the decision process:

BPA has been linked to breast cancer, uterine cancer, decrease of testosterone levels, heart disease, diabetes, liver abnormalities, and abnormal hormone development in fetuses and young children.

When a plastic product contains a recycle code of 1,2,4,5, and 6, they are considered “very unlikely” to contain any trace of BPA. Codes with 3 and 7 may be made with the compound.

In 2011, a study showed that 96 percent of pregnant women in the US had traces of BPA in their system.

Keep in mind that most aluminum cans, utensils, baby bottles, plastic bag liners, and other plastic products have a lining that could contain BPA.

The easiest way for BPA to leak into your foods is to put the product in the microwave or dishwasher; make sure to take food out of packaging that is questionable before heating it up or wash by hand to prevent any leakage.

Alternatives such as glass or stainless steel are great ways to store your hot food or beverages instead of using plastic material.

To ensure that you or your children are not in contact with BPA in food products, search for BPA-free items on the Internet to easily find food that is safe. Rubbermaid, for example, has an entire section dedicated to showing consumers which of their products are BPA free.


What to Avoid:

Many ingredients listed on the label are things that the body never was designed to ingest. Here is a list of things to avoid and why you should avoid them:

Artificial colors are made from coal-tar and are linked to allergic reactions, fatigue, asthma, skin rashes, hyperactivity, and headaches.

Artificial flavorings are cheap chemical mixtures and can cause allergic reactions, dermatitis, eczema, hyperactivity, and asthma.

Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, and sorbitol) are found in diet foods and can negatively impact metabolism and have been linked to cancer.

Benzoate preservatives (BJT, BHA, TBHQ) prevent food from becoming rotten but result in hyperactivity, angiodema, dermatitis, and tumors. It also affects the estrogen balance and levels.

Brominated vegetable oil is a chemical that boosts flavor in soft drinks and can damage the liver, testicles, thyroid, heart, and kidneys.

High fructose corn syrup is a common alternative for sugars and helps keep products sweet. It also increases the risk of type-2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common flavor enhancer for most foods that can cause headaches, nausea, weakness, burning sensations, and difficulty breathing.

Olestra is an indigestible fat substitute used usually in fried or baked food and is linked to gastrointestinal disease, diarrhea, gas, cramps, and bleeding.

Shortening, hydrogenated, and partially hydrogenated oils are industrially created and used in most food products because they are cheap. They raise bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol, and also contribute to heart disease.