How to Really Read a Label

By JJ Virgin, CNS

"Low fat," "sugar free," "no added sugars," "low calorie," "low cholesterol" — what do these terms really mean and what should you be looking out for when you navigate the grocery store aisles? Read on and learn how to make sense of all of the government approved lingo to ensure that you are choosing the best foods for your health!

First, remember your best bet is to go with "whole foods" or foods that are unprocessed or the least processed choices available. You should stick to the outer aisles of the supermarket to find these items. Here are some other things you need to know before you go shopping:

1. Items on labels are listed by weight from the most to the least.

2. Sugar has a lot of different names! The absolute worst one is "high fructose corn syrup," but ALL sugar can contribute to heart disease, accelerated aging, diabetes and obesity — don't kid yourself because it is "natural" or "raw"!

3. What the label lists as the portion size may not equal your reality, so be sure to read the fine print. Portion sizes are based on a standardized reference that is often less than what we choose here in our "super-sized" world.

4. There are good fats and bad fats — be on the lookout for partially hydrogenated oils and avoid these at all costs. Stick with extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, avocados, cold water fish and raw nuts and seeds as your principle sources of fat.

5. Natural doesn't necessarily equal healthy!

Allowable Claims - you may see these referred to on labels:

1. Eating enough calcium may help prevent osteoporosis.

2. Limiting the amount of sodium you eat may help prevent hypertension.

3. Limiting the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat may help prevent heart disease.

4. Eating fruits, vegetables and grain products that contain dietary fiber may help prevent heart disease.

Limiting the amount of total fat you eat may help reduce your risk for cancer.

Eating fiber-containing grain products, fruits and vegetables may help prevent cancer.

Eating fruits and vegetables that are low in fat and good sources of dietary fiber, vitamin A or vitamin C may help prevent cancer.

Not all foods are required to have labeling information on them — the exceptions are fresh supermarket food such as raw fruits, vegetables and fish, meat and poultry products (unless they are processed) and restaurant foods. Remember it is your responsibility to know your numbers (i.e. sugars, fats, calories). Ignorance is NOT an excuse for unhealthy choices!


What the Words Mean:

Dietary Fiber

Remember we should be getting 25-35 grams of fiber a day in our diet and currently we get only 1/3-1/2 of this amount. Use the guidelines below to help you increase your numbers into the optimal range.
High fiber: 5 grams of fiber or more per serving
A good source of fiber: 2.5 - 4.9 grams of fiber per serving

Ideally no more than 1/3 of your total fat or roughly 10 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat.
Fat free: less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving
Low fat: 3 grams of fat or less per serving
Lean: less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and no more than 95 mg of cholesterol per serving
Extra-lean: less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol per serving
Low in saturated fat: 1 gram of sat fat or less per serving and not more than 15 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids
Reduced or less fat: at least 25 percent less fat per serving than the higher fat version

Goal is 300 mg or less of cholesterol per day.
Low cholesterol: 20 mg of cholesterol or less and 2 grams of saturated fat or less per serving
Reduced cholesterol: at least 25% less cholesterol than the higher-cholesterol version and 2 grams of less of saturated fat per serving
Cholesterol free: less than 2 mg of cholesterol or 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving

Sugar free: less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving
Low sugar: may not be used as a claim
Reduced sugar: at least 25% less sugar per serving when compared with a similar food
No added sugars, without added sugar, no sugar added: no amount of sugar or any other ingredient that contains sugars that functionally substitute for added sugars is added during processing or packaging. The product contains no ingredients that contain added sugars such as jam, jelly or concentrated fruit juice

Calorie free: fewer than 5 calories per serving
Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
Light or lite: 1/3 less calories or no more than 1/2 the fat of the higher-calorie, higher-fat version
Reduced calorie: at least 25 percent fewer calories per serving when compared with a similar food

Goal is 2400 mg or less of sodium per day.
Light in sodium: no more than 1/2 the sodium of the higher-sodium version
Sodium free: less than 5 mg of sodium per serving and no sodium chloride (NaCl) in ingredients
Very low sodium: 35 mg of sodium or less per serving
Low sodium: 140 mg or less per serving
Reduced or less sodium: 25 percent less sodium per serving than the higher sodium version

A Few More Terms:
* "Free" has the least amount
* "Very low" and "low" have a little more
* "Reduced" or "less" always means that the food has 25 percent less of that nutrient than the reference version of that food
* "Good source of" means that it contains 10 - 19 percent of the Daily Value (DV) per serving
* "High," "rich in," "excellent source of" means that it contains 20 percent or more of the DV per serving.
* "More," "fortified," "enriched," "added" means that it contains at least 10 percent more of the DV for protein, vitamins, minerals or fiber per serving.
* "Fresh" means that it has not been frozen, heat processed or similarly processed.