Deciphering The Food Label Code!

To some people trying to manage chronic disease like heart ailment or diabetes, label reading is a critical and lots of times a life saving matter. Learn more!
    4/2/2004 - To some people trying to manage chronic disease like heart ailment or diabetes, label reading is a critical and lots of times a life saving matter.

Confused everytime you go to the local supermarket and try to read the labels-polyunsaturated trans-fat? Feeling more like a cryptographer deciphering some kind of 'hieroglyphics' than someone trying to shop healthy?

The ability to read and evaluate food labels is not just a matter of choosing to eat healthy. To some people trying to manage chronic disease like heart ailment or diabetes, label reading is a critical and lots of times a life saving matter.

Getting Started

Look for the Nutrition Facts label on the food product. Begin your reading at the top of the label with the serving size and number of servings per package. Compare the serving size to how much you eat.

If you eat double the serving size, then you need to double the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the percent daily value.

The daily values tell you if the nutrients in a serving of food contribute a lot or a little to the recommended daily intake.

Continue down the label to calories and calories from fat. Calories measure how much energy you get from a serving of the food. Compare the amount of calories in how much you will eat of the food to the total calories you need for a day. If you are trying to manage your weight, choosing foods that are lower in calories will help. Even small differences in calories per serving can add up over the course of making healthier choices all day long.

Food Nutrient Database
Find out how many grams of protein, carbs and fat are in the foods you eat, along with the full vitamin and mineral profile. This database contains data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.
[ Click here to learn more. ]

The nutrients on a label are ordered from what we should limit, such as fat, cholesterol, and sodium, to those nutrients we need to make sure we get enough of, such as dietary fiber, vitamin A & C, calcium and iron.

Looking For The Bad Stuff

The first ones to look for are saturated fat and trans fat - notorious for their ability to raise the cholesterol levels and increase risk of heart disease. Saturated fat is found in greater amounts in butter, cheese, whole milk, whole milk products, meat and poultry.

Trans fat are used by food processors to increase the shelf life of processed food. Foods high in trans-fat include stick margarine, vegetable shortening, cookies, crackers, snack foods, fried foods and other processed foods. If the amount of trans-fat is not listed, look in the ingredients list for words such as ' partially hydrogenated oils.' This indicates trans-fats are probably in the product.

How Do You Know How Much Is Too Much?

Based on a 2,000 calorie diet your total fat should not go over 65 grams and saturated or trans-fat should not be more than a combined 20 grams. How much is that?

Homemade hamburger (3 ounces): 15 grams of total fat, six grams of saturated fat Cheddar cheese (1 ounce): 9 grams of total fat, six grams of saturated fat Fast food French fries (medium): 18 grams of total fat, five grams of saturated fat, five grams of trans-fat.

Monounsaturated Fats Include:

  • Olives
  • Olive Oil
  • Canola Oil
  • Peanut Oil
  • Cashews
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • Avocados
  • Most other nuts...

Polyunsaturated Fats Include:

  • Corn
  • Soybean
  • Safflower
  • Cottonseen Oils
  • Fish

Saturated Fats Include:

  • Whole Milk
  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Ice Cream
  • Red Meat
  • Chocolate
  • Coconuts
  • Coconut Milk
  • Coconut Oil

Saturated Fats Include:

  • Most margarines
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil
  • Deep-fried chips
  • Many fast foods
  • Most commercial baked goods

Find The Right Fat

Aside from staying away from bad fats, try to get as much good fat as possible. The best fats are mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated that are found in:

  • Vegetable Oils
  • Nuts
  • Fatty Fish
  • Avocados
  • Olives and more...

Better yet, pick food products with the highest level of monounsaturated fat like olive and canola oil. Choose the squeeze or spray margarines or even a light version in a tub because stick margarines have more trans-fat than the other types.

Margarine that has less trans-fat is still a better choice than butter because butter is so high in saturated fat. Same thing goes with cheese, pick one that is lower in total fat and saturated fat such as mozzarella part-skimmed.


When picking out breakfast cereals, choose items with high dietary fiber content. Fibers are important in lessening the risk of diabetes, heart disease and colon cancer. Choose one that has at least two-and-a-half grams of fiber per serving. And watch out for the sugar content in the cereal. Remember the grams of sugar represent added sugar as well as the natural sugar found in fruit and milk.

Recommended Whole Grain Cereals*:

  • Cheerios - General Mills
  • Chex, Wheat - General Mills
  • Grape Nuts - Post
  • Healthy Choice Toasted Brown Sugar Squares - Kellogg's
  • Just Right with Fruit & Nuts - Kellogg's
  • Kashi - Kashi Company
  • Mini-Wheats (Raisen Squares, Frosted) - Kellogg's
  • Muesli - Familia
  • Nutri-Grain (Golden Wheat and Almond-Raisen) - Kellogg's
  • Oatmeal Crisp (Almond, Apple Cinnamon, Raisen) - General Mills
  • Organic Healthy Fiber Multi-grain Flakes - Health Valley
  • Puffed Wheat - Quaker
  • Shredded Wheat (Bran, Frosted and Spoon Size) - Post
  • Total, Whole Grain - General Mills
  • Wheaties, Crispy 'n' Raisins - General Mills

* No trans fat, little or no added sugars.

Recommended All Bran Or High Bran Cereals**:

  • 100% Bran - Post
  • All Bran, Bran Buds - Kellogg's
  • All-Bran, original - Kellogg's
  • Bran Flakes - Post
  • Chex, Multi-Bran - General Mills
  • Complete Wheat Bran Flakes - Kellogg's
  • Complete Oat Bran Flakes - Kellogg's
  • Crunchy Corn Bran - Quaker
  • Fiber 7 Flakes - Health Valley
  • Fiber One - General Mills
  • Oat Bran - Quaker
  • Oat Bran Flakes with or without Raisins - Health Valley
  • Organic Bran with Raisins - Health Valley
  • Raisin Bran - Kellogg's
  • Raisin Bran Flakes - Health Valley
  • Raisin Bran, Whole Grain Wheat - Post
  • Total, Raisin Bran - General Mills

** 5 or more grams of fiber, no trans fat, little or no added sugars.

Check out the ingredient to see where the sugar is coming from. If sugar or other sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup are among the first three ingredients, that food product is probably pretty high in added sugar.


Snacks don't have to mean junk food. Healthy snacks include fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads or even a few bites from last night's well-balanced dinner. When eating snacks think about the serving size and how much you are actually consuming and also be aware of marketing ploys, such as a low-calorie cookie. The low-calorie cookie is really not low calorie at all.

Healthy Snacks:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole Grain Breads
  • Tuna
  • Turkey
  • Lean Meats (95-98% Fat Free)
  • Low Fat Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Low Fat Muffins
  • Eggs
  • Protein Bars
  • Protein Shake

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Snacks To Avoid:

  • Fast Food!
  • Candy
  • Mayo
  • White Bread
  • Regular Butter
  • Regular Soda
  • Anything Salty
  • This list could go on forever. If you have a question on a food, email Will @

Often times when manufacturers take the fat out of cookies, they add some sugar. And sometimes when they take sugar out, they add some fat. Cookies are not the only culprit. Crackers and chips—especially those with partially hydrogenated oil—contain higher levels of trans-fat, which is bad for the heart. A better choice would be the reduced-fat version of the cracker because it will have 25 percent less fat and therefore, less trans-fat.

Bonus: Labeling Terms & Their Meanings

Sugar Free Means that it has less than 0.5g per serving.

Reduced Sugar Indicates that the product has at least 25% less sugar per serving.

No Sugar Added Products are those that have had no sugar added during processing or packing. They do include products that already contain natural sugar such as dried fruit and juice.

Calorie Free Means that the product is fewer than 5 calories per serving.

Low Calorie Is an item that contains 40 calories or less per serving.

Fat Free Is less than 0.5g of fat per serving.

Saturated Fat Free Tells you that the product con-tains less than 0.5g per serving and the level of trans fatty acids is no more than 1% of the total fat.

Low Fat Is 3g or less of fat per serving and if the serv-ing is 30g or less or 2 tablespoons or less, per 50g of the product.

Low Saturated Fat Informs the consumer that 1g or less per serving and not more than 15 percent of the total calories are from saturated fat.

Reduced Or Less Fat Can be used on the label if at least 25 percent less per serving than the original ref-erence food.

Reduced Or Less Saturated Fat Is at least 25 percent less per serving.

Cholesterol Free Is any product that contains less than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2g or less saturated fat.

Low Cholesterol Refers to an item that is 20mg or less and 2g or less of saturated fat per serving; and if the serving is 30g or less or 2 tablespoons or less, per 50g of the product.

Reduced Or Less Cholesterol Indicates a prod-uct has at least 25 percent less and 2g or less of satu-rated fat per serving.

Sodium Free Is less than 5mg per serving.

Low Sodium Means the product is 140mg or less per serving.

Very Low Sodium Is an item with 35mg or less per serving.

Reduced Or Less Sodium Requires that the prod-uct be at least 25 percent less per serving.

High Fiber Is any product that contains 5 or more grams per serving. High fiber claims must also meet the criteria for low fat or the level of total fat must be shown next to the high fiber claim.

Good Source Of Fiber Refers to products with 2.5 to 4.9g per serving.

More Added Fiber Products must contain at least 2.5g more per serving than the original reference food.

NOTE: If you notice, the standard for "reduced or less" is always at least 25 percent lower than the reference or original food.

How Often Do You Read Product Labels?

    Always - Even In Restaurants
    Sometimes - In Grocery Stores
    Rarely - Only When Dieting
    Never - Who Cares