Food labels: Read between the lines

Tips to decipher what's written on a food labels... and also what's not


Making healthier food choices has never been easier, thanks to the food labels. As recommended by the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] food labels include information about the amount of sugar and protein in the food. They can especially assist those with diabetes and kidney conditions, who are required to keep a check on their sugar or protein intake. Reading and understanding food labels in the correct way is very important as otherwise it may do more harm than good. For example, the word ‘low-fat’ on a food label gives us only a false sense of security. We may have half a pack of low-fat crisps without any guilt, as the low fat claim fools us into thinking the snack might be healthy, when it actually contains good amount of fat with minimum essential nutrients.

How to read a food label

Serving size

Most nutrients mentioned on the food label are in grams, also written as g. Some nutrients are measured in milligrams, or mg. The nutrition label always lists a serving size, which is an amount of food, such as one cup of cereal or two cookies. This informs us about the amount of food one must consume in one meal or at one time.


The ingredient list is another important part of the label. The ingredients which are listed on the top are in higher amounts while the others present in smaller amount are listed in the end. The order of the ingredients in the list makes it easy to analyse the amount of ingredients present in that food product. The FDA regulates the use of some phrases and terms used on the product packaging. Below is a box listing the common phrases one may see on the food packaging and what they actually mean.

With the increase in the demands for ready-to-eat foods, the choices have never been more exhaustive. We may feel surged by the food choices every time we enter the ready-to-eat aisle in the super market. These guidelines will help you make or limit some choices.

Opt for:

  • If you have no time to clean and chop veggies then one can opt for frozen foods. Compared to canned ones, more nutrients and less preservatives are present in frozen foods.
  • Choose foods with less sodium. Ideally it is recommended that a person should not consume more than one teaspoon of salt per day to prevent high blood pressure. But most of the sodium consumed comes from processed foods.
  • Get enough of nutrients like dietary fibre, vitamin A and C and also, iron. It is significant to not only limit some nutrients while choosing foods but also increasing the above mentioned nutrients.

Limit these:

  • Avoid having foods whose package mentions ingredients like high fructose, corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. Foods with any of these ingredients can be harmful to the body. For example, the presence of hydrogenated oils means it has trans fat and  ‘No trans fat’ or ‘Zero trans fat’ could mean 0.5g of trans fat per serving. But that’s not too much of a worry if you’re having those food in small amounts.
  • One thing we all forget to check is the manufacturing date on food packs. Sometimes it catches our notice only when we open the pack and find something unusual about the appearance or odour. On the contrary, checking the expiry date should become one’s force of habit.
  • Watch out for the calories section in food products. Look at the calories on the label and note the source of the calories [fat, protein, or carbohydrate]. Most people just make sure that sugar is not one of the first few ingredients but that is not enough. Compare all the other nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, to decide whether the food is worth eating. For example, if there are 250 calories in a package and 110 calories of fat, it would mean, if you consume the whole pack, out of the 250g of calories, half the calories would be from fat.

Always check the per cent daily value [%DV] of the nutrients. Percent daily values tells us how much of a nutrient, whether it’s fat, sugar or protein, will one serving give us, compared to how much we need for the entire day. Therefore, select foods with lower %DV of fats, sugars or trans fat.

What you read is not what you may get
No fat or fat free: Contains less than ½ gm of fat per serving
Lite: Contains ½ the fat per serving of the original version or a similar product
No calories or calorie free: Contains less than 5 calories per serving
Low calories: Contains 1/3 rd the calories of the original version
Sugar free: Contains less than 0.5g of sugar per serving
No preservatives added Contains no added chemicals to preserve the product though some of these products may contain natural preservatives
Low sodium: Contains less than 140mg of sodium per serving
High fibre: Contains 5g or more per serving
More or added fibre: Contains at least 2.5g more per serving than the reference food
Organic: Produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients. The organic seal means the product is at least 95 per cent organic.
Extra lean: Meat, poultry and fish with less than 10g of fat, 2g of saturated fat and 95mg of cholesterol per 3½ ounce cooked serving.

This was first published in the May 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Deepshikha Agarwal
Deepshikha Agarwal is a Mumbai-based dietician and sports nutritionist. She writes nutrition-related columns in newspapers and conducts corporate workshops. She also teaches and conducts lectures on diet and wellness isues.


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