Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Decoding The Nutrition "Facts" Label

So you're in the supermarket and you pick up a box of "all natural", "organic", "wheat" crackers that looks like another stellar healthy pick on your part.  I mean you do love your heart and want to lose weight so you're definitely not looking to buy anything that puts you back in the doctor's office anytime soon, right?

You take this box of crackers and turn it all around and upside down until you finally find the nutrition facts label somewhere on the side.  Now you're cruising with high hopes!  You look at it and it's only 130 calories per serving... check!  Only 7% total fat... check!  No cholesterol... check!  Only 1 gram of sugar... check!  And the ingredient list... well there's about 15 items on there and very few of them are things that you've ever actually heard of so you'll just bypass that section.  And voila!!  Into the cart goes the crackers and on to the next victim on the shelf.  Sound familiar?

So how'd you do?  Was that really a healthy choice?  Were those crackers really made from whole grains?  Did you check how many crackers per serving and then think of how many crackers you eat during each sitting and then calculate out the rest of the percentages of total fat, sugar, sodium, etc.?  Of course not.  I've never seen anybody shop with a calculator as they wander up and down the aisles.  Have you?

While reading a nutrition facts label may seem a bit overwhelming and confusing at first it really is pretty easy to get the hang of with a few basic guidelines.  With some simple tips below and some great video clips by registered dietitian Jeff Novick you'll become a master at reading a nutrition label.

Basic Rules For All Products

Jeff Novick RD has two main rules when analyzing the nutrition content of the food you buy. These are a must so make sure you commit them to memory to keep you going down the right path for each of your shopping trips.

Rule #1 - Never ever believe anything on the front of the package... ever!

Rule #2 - Always read the nutrition facts label and ingredient list.

Guidelines For Analyzing Nutrition Facts Label

I'm going to break this up into cholesterol, fats, sodium, and carbohydrates/sugars.  Protein will not be discussed because as long as you're not living completely off of soda and glazed donuts then it's virtually impossible not to get enough protein in your diet.  If you want more information on protein then feel free to visit my protein page.


Everybody is into low cholesterol these days. This isn't a bad thing.  High cholesterol levels have been linked to many different chronic diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, and more.

Here's what you need to know about cholesterol.  We do not need to consume any cholesterol from dietary sources for purposes of promoting health.  Our body makes all the cholesterol it needs to maintain itself.  Plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, legumes) contain NO cholesterol.  Animal-based foods (meat, dairy, eggs) always contain cholesterol and consuming these foods does not promote health.  With that in mind here's a very simple guideline to follow when looking at a nutrition label...

**If it contains any cholesterol then it contains animal-based foods and it's best to put it back on the shelf**


We all need about 2-3% of our total calories to come from essential fats (alpha-linolenic acid & linoleic acid) in our diet for basic survival purposes [1].  The government or USDA says that we can consume up to 35% of calories from fat.  This upper limit of 35% has been put in place since 2005 by the USDA and prior to that it was set at 30% starting from 1990 to 2005.  This level is far too high. During this same time frame the obesity epidemic has continued to grow out of control. It's time we turn to the experts in the field of health and nutrition who really know what they're talking about in regards to this topic.

Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Dean Ornish, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn have reversed the incidence of chronic diseases (including heart disease) in their patients with a more effective and proven set of guidelines regarding fat intake in a person's diet.  They have all had their patients follow a plant-based diet with a fat intake of around 10%-15% of their total calories.  This approach works well to both prevent and reverse chronic illnesses.  Jeff Novick talks about keeping your fat intake to less than 20% of calories for packaged foods which is more in line with the aforementioned physicians.

Simple tips to follow in regards to fats...
-  Check the calories per serving to calories per serving from fat and keep this to 20% or less.  For example if your product has 100 calories per serving than 20 calories or less should come from fat.
-  Check the ingredient list for bad fats.  Avoid saturated animal fats (lard, butter, chicken fat, etc.), saturated vegetable fats (coconut oil, cocoa butter, palm oil, palm kernel oil), and man-made saturated fats (margarine, shortening).
-  Look in the ingredients for the term "partially hydrogenated" oils which are the same as trans fat and you should put these products back on the shelf.


Everyone knows how dangerous too much sodium is for us.  Even so, the average American consumes anywhere from 3,000-4,500 mg of sodium per day.  Human beings have been known to function just fine on as little as 585 mg of sodium per day [2].  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for America recommend that we consume an average of less than or equal to 1,500 mg of sodium per day for optimal health with an upper limit not to exceed 2,300 mg per day [3].  Most Americans consume almost double this amount!  Our intake of excess sodium has been shown to increase the risk of several different cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke.  Needless to say, we need to tone it down when it comes to our sodium intake.

Follow these tips on how to lower your sodium intake...
-  Keep your calories per serving to sodium ratio at 1:1 or lower.  So if you are looking at a product that contains 100 calories per serving then it should have 100 mg or less of sodium per serving.
-  Retire the salt shaker.  Instead, opt for the many different varieties of no salt seasonings available such as Mrs. Dash, Spike seasonings, etc.


It seems as though everyone is on a low carb craze as of late but carbohydrates are not necessarily bad.  Our body's primary source of energy is carbohydrates.  The important thing to realize is that you need to cut out the carbs but rather avoid the bad carbs (refined carbohydrates/sugars) and eat plenty of good carbs (fruits, vegetables, whole grains).

Let's take a look at some helpful tips when considering carbs/sugars on a nutrition label...
-  Don't pay attention to the amount in grams of "total carbs" or "total sugars" on the nutrition label.  You're only interested in what kind of carbs or sugars are in the product.  Look at the ingredient list to find this out.
-  Choose products that contain whole grains.  It must say these exact words to be considered a whole grain product - "whole" as in whole wheat, "rolled" as in rolled oats, "stone-ground" or "cracked".  If it says anything other than these exact words such as "wheat flour", "enriched wheat flour", etc. then it's not whole grain.  These are the same as white flour which is a refined carbohydrate.  It's nutritional value has been stripped of it so these products should be avoided.
-  Natural sources of sugars from fresh fruit are ok but avoid added or refined sugars.  These include evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, brown rice syrup, honey, dehydrated honey, molasses, etc.   You can find a more extensive list here (FYI-I'm not endorsing this article in whole and only providing it for the list of hidden sugars in foods).
-  If you find any of the added/refined sugars mentioned above in the first 5 ingredients on the ingredient list then this product contains a high amount of unhealthy sugar and should be avoided.  Remember, food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in order of highest to lowest in terms of the weighted amount in the product.  The higher an ingredient is on the list the more of this a product contains.

Now take a look at this excellent video by Jeff Novick on the basics of nutrition label reading:

I'd like to also provide one more resource for you to get your nutrition facts straight.  The following website is a great tool for looking up nutrition facts for nearly any food that you might eat.

I hope you have learned how to master reading a nutrition label by now and that it leads to much smarter and healthier choices when you find yourself wandering around your grocery store.  Don't forget, the healthiest foods are the ones without labels at all and can be found in your produce section and these should fill up most of your grocery cart.  Good luck everyone and happy shopping!

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by Dustin Rudolph, PharmD
Clinical Pharmacist

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1 Davis BC, Kris-Etherton PM. Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Sep;78(3 Suppl):640S-646S.
2 Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate. 2005; 6:269. Available:
3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. June 2010.


  1. Great blog! I am not surprised that the government is responsible for confusing nutrition labels. A lot of people see "organic" or "soy" on product labels and think that these foods are healthy for them, however, it is very important that they read the actual ingredients to see what they are consuming. Some people will be very surprised to find out what is actually in their food.

  2. A few weeks ago Dustin meet Karen and I at a Clearwater Publix to show us how to grocery shop in any local grocery store an what to accurately look for on product labels....BOY we learned ALOT Karen has been RN for 37 years and was completely amazed by how manufacturers slip things into their products and still claim things such as gluten free, reduced salt, fat free etc. The number one ruler to remember is that 99% of what is on the front of the package is untrue. He even brought a hand out which Karen has lost.


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