Decoding Nutrition Labels

Food labels can be very useful for making sure you eat a healthy diet. However, labels can be deceptive. Food companies want you to buy their products so they will often highlight the part that will make them be perceived as healthy. Learning what all the labels actually mean can help you upgrade your health bullshit detector.


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Daily Value (%DV): The %DV listed is based on the recommendations for an average person on a 2,000 calorie diet. It is used to help people estimate how it fits into their overall diet. However, your personal needs may be different based on any number of factors.

The Ingredient List: The ingredients are listed in order by weight.

  • Names for Added Sugars: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sugar, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, syrup.
  • Names for Artificial Sweeteners: aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), acesulfame-K (Sweet One), neotame, saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), stevia (Truvia and PureVia)
  • Names for Sodium: sodium bicarbonate (baking soda),  sodium nitrate, sodium citrate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium benzoate.
  • Names for Trans Fat: trans fat, partially hydrogenated oil and hydrogenated oil.

Free: Contains no amount or insignificant amount of specified ingredient. *Watch-out for labels that advertise “0 g of trans fat” because that isn’t the same as being “trans fat free”. They can say 0 g while having up to 0.5 g. The AHA recommends no more than 2 g per day, so it could have up to 25% of your daily limit and still say “0 g of trans fat”.

Low: You can eat the food frequently without exceeding the daily requirements. E.g. “low fat” = 3 g or less per serving.

Lean and Extra Lean: Used to describe the fat content in meat. “Lean” = <10 g fat/<4.5g saturated fat/ <95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g. “Extra Lean” = <5 g fat/<2g saturated fat/ <95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g.

High: Food contains 20% or more of daily value.

Good Source: Food contains 10-19% of the daily value.

Reduced: Nutritionally altered product that contains 25% less of nutrient than the original product. E.g. Reduced fat Cheeze-its.

Less: Food contains 25% less of a nutrient or calories than the reference food.

Light: It can be used in nutritionally altered products that contain 33% fewer calories or 50% less fat. It can also be used in reference texture.

More: Contains at least 10% of daily value or more of the a nutrient than the reference food.

Heart Healthy: This is probably the most deceptive of labels. Food that is  low in fat/ saturated fat, contains no more than 360 mg of sodium, and no more than 60 mg of cholesterol per serving. It must also provide at least 10% of the daily value for vitamins A, or C, or iron, calcium, protein, or fiber. *Keep in mind there are a lot of healthy foods like olive oil or other foods high in healthy fats that are good for your heart.   Also, produce doesn’t have labels and is great for your heart.

Fresh: Food is raw, has not been frozen or heated and contains no preservatives.

High Potency: Used on foods or supplements to describe vitamins/ minerals that are present at 100% daily value or more. It can also be used on multi-ingredient products with at least 100% of DV for  at least 2/3 of the vitamins/ mineral present.

Antioxidant: Used to describe foods or supplements that are “a good source of” or “high in” a nutrient where there is an established daily value and function as an antioxidant. *An antioxidant is a substance that neutralizes reactive oxygen molecules which reduces oxidative damage.

Whole Grain: At least 51% of the grain must be whole grain.

100% Whole Grain: All of the grain must be whole grain.

No Antibiotics: Seen on red meat, poultry, and milk to indicate that the animals were raised without being routinely fed low doses of antibiotics to promote faster growth and prevent infections that tend to occur when animals live in crowded, unsanitary, stressful  and overall cruel conditions. *80% of the antibiotics used in the US go to animal agriculture. The unnecessary use of antibiotics in livestock has played a major role in the development of multi-drug resistant bacteria which are becoming a growing public health threat.

No Hormones: This label appears on beef and dairy products to signify that the animals were raised without supplemental hormones, which are commonly used to make animals gain weight faster or to increase milk production.

100% Natural: These products do not contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives and have no synthetic ingredients.

USDA Organic: Items that are “100 percent organic” are certified to have been produced using only methods thought to be good for the earth. “Organic” means the item contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients.  Prohibits the use of hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering, radiation, synthetic pesticides, and fertilizers.

American Grassfed Certified: Applies to beef and lamb. Requires humane treatment, open pastures, and a grass-only diet for all animals and prohibits use of all antibiotics and hormones.

Rainforest Alliance Certified: Sets high standards for environmental protection, worker rights and welfare, and the interests of local communities. Some pesticide use is allowed.

Fair Trade Certified: Members commit to biodiversity-enhancing practices, ensuring children’s rights, supporting safe working conditions and other fair-trade measures, and documenting fair-trade labor policies.



George Carlin on Food Advertising Bullshit

American Heart Association Nutrition Label Guide

FDA Nutrition Label Guide

NRDC Food Label Guide (good for sustainability-related labels)

3 thoughts on “Decoding Nutrition Labels

  1. Pingback: Fit Tip: Ignore the Front of a Product | The Red Bikini Project

  2. Pingback: Measure in Moderation | The Red Bikini Project

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