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How to Decode Nutritional Labels

Find tips on how to read a nutritional label correctly.

In this article, you will find:

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How to Decode Nutritional Labels

First, figure out how much food was analyzed by the folks who prepared the nutrition label. Serving size clearly describes this set amount of food. Of course, most packages contain more than one serving, and “Servings Per Container” refers to the number of single servings in the entire package. For example, the following label reports that a serving size is ½ cup and there are four servings per container. Therefore, there must be 2 full cups in the entire package because ½ cup × 4 = 2 cups.

Do you eat the amount of food defined as one serving? Remember, fat and calorie measurements on the label are for a single serving size only. And we know it's easy to eat more than one measly serving. Here's a perfect example of the difference between serving size and the actual servings eaten: one serving of ice cream (½ cup) has approximately 12 grams of fat. Most of the people I know can easily eat 1 cup in a sitting, and you know what that means. When you double the serving size, you double everything: the calories, protein grams, carbohydrate grams, and, of course, the fat grams. Pay close attention to the amount per serving. If you go over (or under) on servings, keep that in mind when reading the remaining information.


When calories are listed on a label, they refer to the amount of calories in a single serving. Plain and simple. The sample label shows 90 calories per serving. What about those “lo-cal” claims frequently displayed on the packaging? Luckily, the following key words are now defined by the government and must mean what they say:

  • Calorie-free Less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Low-calorie Forty calories or less for most food items; 120 calories or less for main dish products (lentil soup, turkey burger, chicken breast, and so on).
  • Reduced-calorie Must have at least 25 percent fewer calories than the regular version of that food item.

Total Fat

This section lists the total number of fat grams from all types of fat—saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. As you can see, the label reveals that there are 3 grams of fat per serving. Another listing titled “Calories from Fat” converts the total fat grams into fat calories (number of fat grams × 9 = calories coming from fat). Again, the sample label reports 30 calories from fat per serving. This is valuable information because it allows you to identify the percentage of fat in a particular food. Ideally, you should choose foods with a big difference between the total number of calories and calories coming from fat. The bigger the gap, the less the percentage of total calories coming from fat.

Here are some of the common “fat” phrases that appear on packaged food products and how they are defined by the government:

  • Fat-free Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.
  • Low-fat Three grams of fat (or less) per serving.
  • Reduced-fat At least 25 percent less fat per serving than the original version of a food product.
Food for Thought

In 2006, trans fats will be included on food labels. Until then, the best way to determine if something contains these artery-cloggers is to check out the ingredients list. If you see the phrase "partially hydrogenated oil," put the package back on the shelf and choose something else.

One exception: if the very same product with hydrogenerated oil advertises "0 trans fat" or "trans fat-free," you'll know that the amount of hydrogenerated oil is miniscule—and each serving has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat.

Saturated Fat

Even though saturated fat is part of the total fat in food, it gets listed by itself because it can be extremely bad for you. As you can see, the sample label shows no saturated fat—good deal! In general, avoid foods that are high in saturated fat. This type of fat is responsible for increasing your risk of heart disease and other illnesses.

Here are some of the common “saturated fat” phrases that appear on packaged food products and how they are defined by the government:

  • Saturated fat-free Less than 0.5 gram per serving.
  • Low in saturated fat One gram or less in a serving size or no more than 10 percent of calories coming from saturated fat.
  • Reduced saturated fat At least 25 percent less saturated fat than the original version.

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