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Understanding Food Labels and Claims

Quick Hit Summary

All food products (with the exception of fresh fruit, vegetables and meats) require food labels. Many important things can be found on these food labels including nutrition information, ingredients list and nutrient claims. When looking at nutrition information, it’s important to be aware of a few potential issues… The nutrition information may be for only 1/2 of the product (ie- 2 servings of juice in one container), and the daily values are based off the 1968 recommendations. With respect to the ingredient list… ingredients are listed in descending order of amounts, sugar can be “hidden” under different names, a fruit juice may contain only artificial fruit flavors and colors and partially hydrogenated fats (TRANS FATS) are often found in a product despite a product claiming to be Trans Fat Free. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of what nutrient claims mean and how to interpret them.

Food Labels

Figure 1 A food label off of a Brummel & Brown® yogurt container.9

The grocery store can be a very confusing place. It seems like shelves are lined with at least 10 different types of breads, cereals, etc, with each brand claiming that theirs is the best. For the health conscious consumer, this simple trip to the grocery store can get quite confusing in a hurry. All food products, with the exception of fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats are required by the FDA to have food labels1. The three things of interest on food labels label are the nutrition information, ingredients list and nutrient claims.

Nutrition Information Labels

The best way to the nutritional content of a given food is to look straight at the nutrition label. Rather than try to explain everything in words, I’ll take refer you The FDA website which has an excellent description of how to tackle this part of the label2. To see it please CLICK HERE.

There are a couple of often abused points, regarding nutrition labels that I would like to discuss further.

Serving Size

First, I’d like to emphasize the importance of the serving size/servings per container. When drinking soda, juice, or a sports drink, I’ll often see a product with 2-3 servings of the drink per container. With a quick look at a nutrition label one reads that a product only contains 50 calories (kcal). However, what one often misses, is the fact that it contains multiple servings per container. As such, the individual who was thinking that they were getting 50 kcal from their electrolyte sports drink is actually consuming 200 kcal by drinking the entire bottle. As I write this, I can’t help but think about various individuals that I’ve seen trying to lose weight while simultaneously drinking a full container of a sports drink during their workout. To follow it up, they will then drink another one while “cooling off.” At the end of the workout, they’ve effectively burned 250 kcal doing their aerobic work, while drinking 300 kcal to give them a net balance of +50 kcal.

% Daily Value

Second I’d like to emphasize the % daily values (% DV). These can be used to quickly compare two products. For fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate and fiber, these numbers are based off eating a 2000 kcal diet. It also assumes that 60% of your total kcal is coming from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 10% from protein. I personally feel that a 50:25:25 or 40:30:30 ratio (Carbohydrate:Protein:Fat) is better with respect to %kcal each macronutrient provides in one's diet

The daily values listed on food packages are NOT BASED on current RDA/AI+ (Recommended Daily Allowance/Adequate Intake) values1. Rather, they reflect the +RDA/AI of 1968+*. As expected there have been many changes in the past 40 years. For instance, new values have been established for these important nutrients:

  • Vitamin C: 60mg—> 90mg
  • Calcium: 1000mg—> 1300 mg
  • Sodium: 2400mg—> 1500mg
  • Potassium: 3500mg—> 4700mg
  • Dietary Fiber: 12.5 g/1000kcal—> 14g/1000kcal

As aforementioned, the daily values should be used to quickly compare two products with respect to its nutrient content. My take home points are that %DV’s are based off 2000 kcal and guidelines established in 1968. For many athletes/active individuals, a 2000 kcal diet is insufficient to meet their energy demands. Thus, one should increase the amount of these macronutrients (Fat, Protein, Carbs) proportionally to satisfy their kcal need. Also the daily values for other nutrients (particularly those listed above) do not accurately reflect today’s RDA/AI.

Ingredients List

Order Items Are Listed

There are a few things that I’d like to point out regarding ingredient lists. Ingredients on this list are ordered in decreasing amounts. In other words, the first ingredient listed contributes the most (by weight) to the product and so on. Many individuals realize that whole grains are better than processed grains with respect to human health. However, what many individuals may not realize is how various food companies can deceive customers with respect to whole grain claims. For example one can buy basic wheat bread in the store with the assumption that they’re getting a healthier product vs. standard white bread. The customer may naturally assume that this bread is mostly made with whole grains. Unfortunately if the package just says wheat bread (vs whole wheat), it generally consists of mostly processed grains. This can be reflected by looking at the ingredients list for plain wheat bread. Often the first ingredients on these are unbleached wheat flour, bleached wheat flour and then whole wheat flour. In the end, whole wheat grains may only be contributing 10-20% of the total carbohydrate content of the product.

One must realize that wheat flour simply means that the flour came from wheat. It does not include the wheat bran or wheat germ which are largely responsible for the health benefits of whole grains. Another trick manufactures use to fool a customer is altering the products natural color. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that darker/browner bread is a reflection of the whole grain content of it. I’ve seen various grain products try to come across as whole grain simply by adding food colorings to its dough during the processing of it. Therefore, don’t buy the bread based on the color of it. As a rule of thumb, if a whole grain is not the first ingredient on the list (or as I prefer, the only type of carbohydrate on the list – if it's a grain based item), get rid of it.

Hidden Sugars

The second thing to look for on the ingredients list is sugar content. Manufactures can easily hide the true sugar content by listing it under another name. For instance sugar can be listed as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup, maltose, cane juice crystals, dextrose, or sucrose. As a general rule, if the word “syrup” appears after it, one can assume its sugar.

Figure 2 A sample ingredient list and nutrition profile. Notice how they list cane juice crystals on the ingredient list vs. calling it what it actually is – sugar.8

Artificial Flavors

The third thing I’d like to point out is artificial flavors. Manufacturers can be very misleading with respect to nutritious quality of their products, especially those which are juices. When most individuals look at juices, they instantly think of the health benefits of the given fruit (ie- antioxidants from grapes, oranges, apples, etc). However, check the ingredient list as many juices contain very little actual whole fruit juice. For instance look at the Sunny Delight’s Blend Orange Fused Strawberry Citrus Punch® ingredient list3.

"CONTAINS: Water, high fructose corn syrup and 2% or less of each of the following: concentrated juices (orange, tangerine, apple, lime, grapefruit), citric acid, malic acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin c), thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin b1), natural & artificial flavors, modified cornstarch, canola oil, sodium citrate, cellulose gum, sucralose, sodium hexametaphosphate, potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate to protect flavor, yellow 6, red 40."

As you can see, this is basically sugar, with a little artificial flavoring added to it. Sunny Delights other products are pretty much identical, most of their products contain a TOTAL of 2% or less of actual real fruit juice. It DOES NOT mean 2% of each type of the juice listed in parentheses. Even if it did, on the above list, this would mean that only 10 % were coming from concentrated juices. If you’re drinking fruit juices, make sure that they’re coming from 100% fruit juices. On a note of caution, make sure to look at the sugar content and total kcal per serving of fruit juice as these can add up in a hurry. Also, many nutritional benefits of fruit/vegetables come from their peel and do not show up in their juice.

Trans Fats/Partially Hydrogenated Fats

The final thing I'd like to point out with regards to ingredient lists is partially hydrogenated soybean/cottonseed/rapeseed oil. Similar to how sucrose is another word for sugar, partially hydrogenated is just another way to say trans fat. These fats, which are produced synthetically by food manufactures have been linked to increased LDL cholesterol, decreased HDL cholesterol, increased inflammation, and possibly may even decrease insulin sensitivity4. They are commonly found in large quantities amongst baked goods (cookies, bars, etc), granola/fruit snack bars and nut butters. They are also found in some imitation butters.

One thing that's extremely important to be aware of is that products can advertise that they are "Trans Fat Free" and list 0g as the amount of trans fat in the nutrient information label, but still contain trans fats5. The FDA allows food labels to make this claim if they have less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. Although 0.5 may not seem like a lot, if you eat 3-4 cookies, etc, that each contain 0.49g/cookie, you're looking at 1.47-1.96g of trans fat. Keep in mind that The American Heart Association (AHA) states that a MAXIMUM of 1% of your kcal can be from trans fat6. For the individual who consumes 2000 kcal/day, this comes out to ~2 grams/day. My recommendations are even more stringent than the AHA; Because of their harmful cardiovascular effects, I recommend doing everything you can to completely remove all sources of manufactured trans fats from your diet. Be careful though, even if a food is trans fat free, it doesn't mean it's healthy for you… A sugary fruit filled pie is still a sugary fruit filled pie regardless of if it contains trans fats or not!

While discussing trans fats and partially hydrogenated fats, I'd like to clarify the term fully/completely hydrogenated vegetable oils. One would naturally think that if partially hydrogenated oils are bad, fully hydrogenated are even worse. However, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils are produced in a different way and do not contain trans-fatty acids7. On a final note of caution, please be aware that products that simply lists "hydrogenated" cottonseed/rapeseed/soybean in it's ingredients list is somewhat ambiguous. This could mean that the product may contain fully and/or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Nutrient Claims

There are numerous FDA approved health claims out there. Rather than bombard you with all of them, I’ll just highlight the ones I feel are most important.

Light/Lite1- a product has 50% less fat and/or 1/3 fewer calories than its regular version. For example Kraft’s Light Done Right salad dressings contains 50% less fat, 1/3 fewer calories than there regular salad dressings. One caveat, light sometimes can refer to the color or texture of food (ie-light brown sugar).

Reduced1- product contains 25% less of a particular ingredient (sugar, kcal, fat, cholesterol, etc) than its regular version of the product. For example the regular version of a particular cookie may contain 40g sugar/serving. Its sugar reduced version contains 30g sugar/serving.

Low Fat1- product contains < 3g fat /serving

***The above terms refer to reducing a certain ingredient in the product. Be careful with products that say “reduced fat” on them. Often in order to keep the taste/texture similar to the original version, they will add carbohydrates to it. Thus, the actual amount of kcal is similar to the original version.

Fortified/Enriched/More1- product contains > 10% more of a particular substance (vitamin, mineral, etc) in comparison to its regular version. For example, a fortified version of a cereal originally having 200mg of calcium in it, may now have 220mg.

Good Source1- Product contains 10-19% of the daily value for a particular ingredient. For example, a product claiming to be a “Good Source of Fiber” will have 2.5-4.9 grams of fiber (daily value for fiber- 25g).

High1- Product contains >20% of the daily value for a particular ingredient. For example, a product claiming to be a “High in Fiber” will have > 5 grams of fiber (daily value for fiber- 25g).

Other terms to watch for:

Organic1- foods free of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically altered, antibiotics or irridated during their production.

Natural1- should not be confused with organic; generally refers to fact that nothing artificial (flavorings, colors, etc) have been added to it. However, the FDA (which is responsible for food labels) has not issued any legal definition for this word. Thus, please be aware that the term "natural" is kind of "gray" with respect to the types of ingredients it contains.

A few things to keep in mind regarding Organic and Natural foods… All organic foods are natural, but not all natural foods are organic (right now I’m thinking of my former geometry teachers giving me the “All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles…” speech. If this brought up any bad geometry nightmares for you, I apologize in advance!!). Also, just because a product is organic, it doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for you. For example, one should not justify eating four doughnuts on occasion (instead of 1 or none) just because they’re organic!! Regardless of if its organic or not, a doughnut containing 65 grams of sugar and 15 grams of fat is not healthy!

Bottom Line

In conclusion, the grocery store can be an awfully confusing place. However, in order to make informed decisions, it's important to understand what is on a nutrient label and how to interpret it. There are many "sneaky" practices that manufactures use to trick consumers into thinking that a product is healthier than it actually is based off its ingredients/serving size. I hope the above information will be of assistance as you stroll up and down those grocery aisles.

Good luck!

Sunny Delight’s Blend Orange Fused Strawberry Citrus Punch® is a trademark or registered trademark of Sunny Delight Beverages Co.


1 US Food and Drug Administration. How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. Updated 6/18/2009. Accessed on Oct. 27, 2009 from: http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ConsumerInformation/ucm078889.htm#dvs.

2 Wardlaw GM, Hampl JS, and DiSilvestro RA. Perspectives in Nutrition. 6th edition. McGraw-Hill Companies.2004. Print.

3 Sunny Delight Beverages Co. “Sunny D Products.”2009. Accessed on Oct. 27, 2009 from: http://www.sunnyd.com/products/orangeBlens.shtml.

4 Mozaffarian D, Aro A, Willett WC. Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;63 Suppl 2:S5-21.

5 Questions and answers about trans fat nutrition labeling. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/qatrans2.html. Accessed November. 11, 2009.

6 Lichtenstein AH, et al. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association nutrition committee. Circulation. 2006;114:82.

7 Mayo Clinic Staff. Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health. Mayo Clinic. May 7, 2009. Accessed November 11, 2009 from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/trans-fat/CL00032/METHOD=print.

8 Photo uploaded by anyjazz65 . Accessed June 13, 2010 from: www.flickr.com/photos/49024304@N00/4330236745/

9 Photo uploaded by iLoveButter. Accessed June 19, 2010 from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdickert/2382424839/

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Written on November 09, 2009 by Sean Casey
Last Updated: August 31, 2015

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Sean Casey is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in both Nutritional Science-Dietetics and Kinesiology-Exercise Physiology. Sean graduated academically as one of the top students in both the Nutritional Science and Kinesiology departments.
Field Experience: During college, Sean was active with the UW-Badgers Strength and Conditioning Department. He has also spent time as an intern physical preparation coach at the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, FL. He also spent time as an intern and later worked at Athletes Performance in Tempe, AZ. While at these locations he had the opportunity to train football, soccer, baseball, golf and tennis athletes. Sean is also active in the field of sports nutrition where he has consulted with a wide variety of organizations including both elite (NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars) and amateur athletic teams. His nutrition consultation services are avalable by clicking on the Nutrition Consultation tab.