Deciphering Food Labels

For any weight management program to be successful, one should learn the practice of low-fat shopping. Being able to make informed choices takes away much of the guesswork from grocery shopping and can make for a healthier you.

A Bite-sized Bit of History

Standardized food labeling as we know it today is a relatively recent phenemenon. In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed iin the United States. The act requires all packaged foods to be printed with nutrition labeling and for all health claims for foods to be consistent with terms as defined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. This is reflected in the nutrition facts and basic per-serving nutritional information on packages. Further, food labels are required to list the most important nutrients in an easy-to-follow format.

Going a step further, the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires food producers to list on the package any food that contains one or more of: peanuts, soybeans, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat.

Great! So what does this really mean for the health-conscious consumer? Read on.

The Name Game

Most of the terms used in food labeling are straightforward. Their signficance, however, sometimes exaggerated or downplayed by advertising claims and the spin game they often play, can be a source of confusion.

  • Serving size: The amount of food the information refers to. Servings per container: The number of servings in the entire product or package.
  • Percent daily values: Shows how a food fits into an overall daily diet based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories.
  • Calories: The total number of calories in one serving of this food.
  • Calories from fat: The total number of calories from fat in one serving of this food.
  • Total fat: The weight of fat (in grams) in one serving of this food.
  • Saturated fat: The weight of saturated fat (in grams) in one serving of this food.
  • Sodium: The weight of sodium (in milligrams) in one serving of this food.
  • Protein: The weight of protein (in grams) in one serving of this food.
  • Total carbohydrates: The weight of both complex and simple carbohydrates (in grams) in one serving of this food.
  • Sugars: The weight of simple carbohydrates (in grams) in one serving of this food; to determine how many complex carbohydrates are in the food, subtract the sugars listed from the total carbohydrates.

With a clear understanding of the key label words behind you, there are several other important values to consider before concluding that a food product in question is a healthy, low-fat food.

Check the List

Food ingredients are listed in descending order according to their quantity in that food. The first three or four ingredients listed usually comprise most of the product.

Bear in mind, however, that fat and sugar come in many different forms, so that even if they are not one of the first three ingredients, the food can still be very high in fat and/or sugar.

Shortening and Sweetening

Other “names” for fat include hydrogenated vegetable shortening, butter, margarine, oil (coconut, safflower, palm, etc.), lecithin, lard, and cream solids.

Other names of sugars include fructose, honey, corn sweeteners, molasses, maltose, corn syrup, fructose, galactose, glucose, and dextrose.

If only one of these names appears among the first few ingredients on the label, or if several of them are listed throughout the label, this food is likely to be high in fat or sugar.  

Scrutinize Total Fat and Saturated Fat

When checking the label of a food, always check the line that reads “total fat.” Most experts believe you should get no more than 25 percent of total daily calories from fat. For someone who weighs 160 pounds, that would be about 72 grams a day.

Before purchasing any food, check the total fat to see if that product fits into your eating plan. Just below the “total fat” line is “saturated fat.” Again, you want this number to be very low, since this type of fat is linked to obesity and heart disease. No more than 10 percent of calories should come from saturated fats. For the average person, this amounts to between 7-10 grams a day.

Determine the Percentage of Calories from Fat

In addition to listing the ingredients, lfood abels provide the information necessary to determine the percentage of calories from fat in a specific food product. Knowing this is actually far more important than simply knowing the number of grams of fat in the food product: Just as you want less than 25 percent of your total daily calories to be from fat, you also want to try to eat foods that get less than 25 percent of their total calories from fat. Just because a food product has a low number of fat grams, it is not necessarily a low-fat, healthy food.

Take, for instance, a reduced-fat dessert topping. Many people assume that since this product only has 1.5 grams of fat per serving that it is a healthy dessert topping. However, this product contains 45 percent fat.

Conversely, a common nutrition bar has 5 grams of fat per serving. Many dieters would not consider this product because of the number of fat grams, when, in fact, it contains only 12 percent fat. How can a food that only has 1.5 grams of fat per serving have a higher percentage of fat calories than a product that contains 5 grams of fat? It’s simple: The whipped topping only contains 30 calories per serving whereas the nutrition bar contains 380.

The nutrition bar is packed with protein and carbohydrates, giving the product a higher nutrition value — and more calories. Since the dessert topping only contains 30 calories, it has very little nutritive value, but quite a lot of fat in relation to the total volume of food and calories.

When checking labels, be sure determine the percentage of fat calories in addition to the number of fat grams. To determine the percentage of calories from fat of a food product, look for two important numbers: calories per serving and total grams of fat per serving.

Since you want to know what percentage of the total calories are fat calories, you must first convert the grams of fat into calories. Remember, there are 9 calories per gram of fat. To calculate the fat percentage of the food: Multiply the number of grams of fat by the number 9 (9 calories per gram of fat). Then, divide this product by the total calories per serving. The result is the percentage of fat calories.


Determining food nutritive values can be as simple as using a bit of basic arithmetic and a dose of common sense. So, next time you head to the grocery, don’t just think with your stomach, and don’t forget to bring a calculator!


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
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