How to Become Food Label Savvy | Athletic Business

How to Become Food Label Savvy

The more you know about nutrition, the better you can help your members make the right choices for their fitness goals.

AS YOU STROLL down the aisles of your favorite grocery store, it may seem as though many of the food products lining the shelves are "calling out" to health-conscious consumers. Through attractive labeling and bold lettering, food manufacturers work hard to catch and retain the attention of potential buyers. Samples of statements seen on food product packaging today include "reduced fat," "increase fiber in your diet" and "provides valuable nutrients."

Food labels provide answers to questions about what nutrients can be found in particular foods, and allow consumers to make informed food choices. However, understanding all of the information contained on a food label can be confusing and challenging. Many consumers do not know how to decipher exactly what information is contained on a food label, and why it may be important to them; this may lead members to unknowingly sabotage their efforts to make their diets healthier. If you want to increase your understanding - and your members' - about the different types of information on food labels, keep reading.

Learning label language

To determine if your clients' diets are well-balanced, nutritious, and low in fat and cholesterol, it is important to look at the nutritional values of the food they are eating. Food labels explain the ingredients of a product. Reading labels can help clients make wise food choices and help them calculate such useful information as serving sizes, calories per serving, daily reference values, vitamin and mineral content, and nutrient and fat percentages.

Packaging lingo

Over the past several years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have made changes to food labels that make reading them easier. In 1994, food labels were required to look as they do today. According to the FDA's website, information is included on food labels because they address current health concerns. Food labels provide the following:

  • Nutrition information for almost every food in the grocery store.
  • Distinctive, easy-to-read formats that enable consumers to more quickly find the information they need to make healthful food choices.
  • Information on the amount per serving of fat, cholesterol, fiber and other nutrients of major health concern.
    • Standardized serving sizes that make nutritional comparisons of similar products easier.
    • Nutrient reference values, expressed as a percentage of the daily recommended values, to help consumers see how much of a food fits into an overall daily diet.
    • Uniform definitions for terms that describe a food's nutrient content - such as "light,""low fat" and "high fiber" - to ensure that such terms mean the same for any product on which they appear.
    • Claims about the relationship between a nutrient or food and a disease or health-related condition, such as calcium and osteoporosis, and fiber and cancer. These are helpful for people who are concerned about eating foods that may help keep them healthier longer.

Get the nutrition facts

Pertinent information appears on the food label under the title "nutrition facts." These facts explain the serving size and the amount of nutrients contained in each serving, such as total fat, cholesterol, sodium, fiber and sugar. The footnote, located at the bottom of the food label, includes information about the total amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate and fiber recommended for the day for people on a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet. The percent of daily values are calculated from these recommendations, but are only based on the 2,000-calorie diet. Actual caloric and nutritional requirements vary by age, weight, gender and activity level. Food labels should be used as a guide to determine whether a food is generally nutritious.

Super serving sizes

Serving sizes help people understand how much they are eating. Historically, serving size determinations were made at the discretion of the manufacturer. Today, serving sizes are uniform, and are based on amounts that people may actually eat. They are expressed in metric terms, as well as "common household measures," such as 1 cup of cereal, 1 teaspoon of sugar or one slice of pie. The nutrition label tells you how many nutrients are in that amount of food per serving. For example, if the label indicates that five pretzels are considered one serving, then eating 10 pretzels would be considered two servings. The label also indicates how many total servings are contained in that package of food. For example, 15 servings in a box of cookies.

Count those calories

The number of calories in a single serving is listed on the left side of the label. This number indicates the total amount of energy coming from one serving, and can come from fat, protein or carbohydrates. People tend to pay attention to the caloric content because consuming more calories than the body expends will cause weight gain. Other important information contained on the label includes the number of calories that come from fat. According to the FDA, daily caloric fat intake should be limited to 65 total grams for a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, with not more than 20 grams coming from saturated fat.

The footnote will include caloric equivalents per gram for the energy-producing nutrients: fat contains 9 calories per gram; protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. This will further assist the consumer in calculating total calories from fat, protein and carbohydrates.

Daily reference values

Food labels list energy-producing foods in terms of a "daily reference value," or a DRV. This is done to assist consumers in understanding how a food and its calories fit into a daily diet based on 2,000 calories.

Daily reference values are expressed in percentages, and are based on the amount of energy-producing calories (protein, carbohydrates, fat) a person should eat each day. For example, there is a daily recommended value for fat. The food label should read that one serving of this food meets 10 percent of the daily value for fat. The DRV for fat, carbohydrates and protein are calculated as follows:

  • Fat based on 30 percent of calories
  • Saturated fat based on 10 percent of calories
  • Carbohydrate based on 60 percent of calories
  • Protein based on 10 percent of calories (persons over four years of age)

Other DRVs for sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat stay the same no matter how many calories a person eats, and include the following:

  • Sodium: less than 2,400 mg.
  • Cholesterol: less than 300 mg.
  • Saturated fat: less than 20 mg.

Entirely too much fat

Total fat content is the number of fat grams contained in one serving of food. Fat is an important nutrient that the body uses for growth and development, but clients should eat it in reasonable moderation. The different types of fat, such as saturated, unsaturated and trans fat, may be listed separately on the food label. Recently, there has been a focus on the dangers of trans fats in food products. Foods made with hydrogenated oils include margarine and other processed foods such as crackers, potato chips and cookies. These foods often contain trans fats. Another significant source of trans fats are fried foods. Research has estimated that the amount of trans fats from all dietary sources should provide no more than 8 to 10 percent of total daily calories.

Trans fats. A trans fat is created when unsaturated fats are hydrogenated, creating a form of fat that becomes a solid. This process became popular in the early 1900s when ready-made food products were created in an effort to lengthen their shelf life. Trans fats contribute to the clogging of arteries, elevated blood levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, and can even lower the good HDL cholesterol levels. Food manufacturers had voluntarily included information about trans fats on some food labels, but, effective Jan. 1, 2006, the FDA has made such a listing mandatory. If the words "partially hydrogenated" appear in the ingredients list, the product contains trans fat.

Some of the most sensible dietary advice remains unchanged with respect to fat. Clients should reduce fat intake to 30 percent of total daily calories, and limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent. Also, as a general rule, clients should limit their consumption of high-fat foods, deep-fried foods and snacks made with hydrogenated oils, as they contain trans fats.

Cholesterol and sodium

Cholesterol and sodium values are included on food labels because of the growing prevalence of heart disease and high blood pressure. Individuals with these health conditions need to limit cholesterol and/or sodium (salt) in their diet in order to maintain heart health. Cholesterol and sodium are usually measured in milligrams, and indicate how much are in a single serving of the food. Experts suggest that 2,400 milligrams of sodium would be a good daily target for healthy adults. People with high blood pressure are often advised to eat less sodium by using less salt in cooking and at meal time, and also going easy on processed foods that have sodium added. Foods that can have high amounts of sodium per serving include canned soups, frozen dinners, cured and luncheon meats, potato chips, crackers and dill pickles.

Nutrient content claims

Nutrient content claims must provide reliable descriptions of the product based on specific definitions imposed by the FDA. Health claims such as "light," "high fiber" or "low fat" must meet strict U.S. government definitions so as to maintain accuracy and consistency from one food label to another. The FDA created the following definitions for these terms to ensure consistency of food product labeling:

Free. A food contains no amount of these nutrients: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar and calories. Note that these foods are usually not as "free" as they appear; FDA regulations indicate that if the serving contains less than 0.5 grams, the content shall be expressed as 0 (zero).

Calorie-free. Fewer than 5 calories per serving

Fat-free. Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving

Low. This claim can be used on foods that can be eaten often without going over the limit for one or more of these nutrients: saturated fat, cholesterol, fat, sodium and calories.

Low-saturated fat. 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving

Low-fat. 3 grams of fat or less per serving

Low-cholesterol. 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving

Low-sodium. Less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving

Low-calorie. 40 calories or less per serving

Watching serving sizes is still an important part of controlling daily caloric intake. Just because something is "reduced fat" or "lighter" in calories does not mean that clients can eat more of it. Choosing foods lower in saturated fat and cholesterol will help to lower blood cholesterol. By eating a larger portion of a food low in saturated fat, clients may end up eating just as much or more saturated fat as with the regular variety of food.

Manufacturer's claims about nutrition and health

Through third-party endorsements or other approved references, the FDA now allows health claims to be made for a relationship between a nutrient or food and a disease or health condition. Statements or symbols now appear on products that meet the requirements for authorized health claims. Examples of nutrient/disease relationship claims include calcium and osteoporosis, fat and cancer, and folic acid and neural tube defects. All health claims are clearly worded with simple language so that the consumer will understand the relationship between a food or food component and a health-related condition. As an example, a claim may use wording such as, "While many factors affect heart disease, diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of this disease."

Ingredients and allergens

Ingredient labeling is required on all foods that contain more than one ingredient. The most important thing to know about the ingredient declaration is that ingredients are listed by weight from most to least. The ingredient list is also useful for people with food allergies. New regulations require allergy information be given for eight major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans.

"Healthy" labels

Sometimes food packages will label their food "healthy." In order to be labeled like this, the food product must be low in fat and saturated fat. It must also have a limited amount of cholesterol and sodium. If it is a single-food item, it must provide at least 10 percent or more of vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber. Besides single-food items, meal-type products such as frozen dinners must provide 10 percent of two or three vitamins and minerals, protein or fiber. Additionally, the sodium content cannot be greater than 360 milligrams per serving for a single-item food, or 480 milligrams per serving for meal-type products.

Be food-label savvy

Use labels to create clients' eating strategies by using the following recommendations:

  • Make sure the amount clients eat is compared to the serving size.
  • Encourage clients to use the label to compare the fat calories to total calories.
  • Encourage clients to use the daily reference values to pick a nutrient and keep track of the percent they are eating each day.
  • Encourage clients to use the labels to limit saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and sugar in their daily diet.
  • Encourage clients to increase their daily consumption of fruits and vegetables, and to choose whole-grain carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice and cereal.
  • Help clients understand the health claims on labels, and encourage them to read ingredient statements.

Understanding the food label is the first step in helping your clients to make better-informed food choices. Because of food labeling, consumers can exert better control over what and how much they are eating, which translates into healthier food choices for themselves and their families - and better results in the gym. FM

Irene Lewis-McCormick, M.S., A.C.S.M. H.F./I., A.C.E., is the recreation and wellness director at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Iowa. As a veteran fitness educator, author and master personal trainer, she is currently involved in curriculum development for A.C.E. continuing education programs. She can be reached at Kenneth R. Lewis, J.D., M.A., is an A.C.E.-certified group fitness instructor teaching Pilates, yoga and group fitness classes in Phoenix, Ariz. He can be reached at

Label Laws

Food manufacturers are required by law to include information on food labels on these nutrients:

  • Total calories
  • Calories from fat
  • Total fat
  • Trans fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Total carbohydrate
  • Dietary fiber
  • Sugar
  • Protein
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Ingredients that may cause allergic reactions

If a claim is made about any other nutrient (optional nutrients), then nutritional information on those nutrients becomes mandatory.

Additional Resources

FDA. General inquiries: 888 463-6332; Food Safety Education and Communication Office: 1400 Independence Ave. S.W., Room 1180, Washington, D.C. 20250 Kids Health. American Dietetic Association.

Courtesy of the FDA.

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