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Are food labels a mystery to you?

You’re not alone.

We get lots of information from labels, but most of us have no idea what all those facts mean.

Today we’re going to review exactly what’s in a label and how to read them correctly.

The Best Alternative? Buying Foods That Need No Label

Before we begin talking about how to read labels on packaged foods, it is essential to stress one simple fact: to attain optimal nutrition you really shouldn’t be reading those food labels in the first place.

Because a food label is found on packaged food; you will always be better off choosing whole foods.

And the closer to nature the better.




Whole grains.

But it’s not always easy to fit whole food cooking and shopping into your busy day.

In those (hopefully very rare) cases, it’s okay to opt for minimally processed foods.

As long as you carefully read those labels (not just the ingredients but the fat, sodium and sugar content) and learn what they mean.

Here are some tips to help you do that.

Deciphering Food Labels

Food labels can be confusing—even misleading.

And to make things more difficult, there’s no global standard for labeling packaged foods.

The most important thing to remember is you can never evaluate a product just by looking at the front of the package which rarely tells the whole story.

Instead, it’s essential you read the nutrition label before you buy – and especially before you eat.

To make it easier to navigate the world of “acceptable” packaged foods, let’s review everything you need to watch for.

Fats and Oils

When choosing packaged foods, you should ALWAYS be on the lookout for certain types of “bad” fats:

  • Saturated Animal Fats: Avoid products containing dairy, cheese, lard, and butter.
  • Saturated Vegetable Fats: Cocoa butter, coconut, palm and palm kernel oil are also on the list of no-no fats.
  • Man-Made Saturated Fats: Avoid foods with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated (trans fat) vegetable oils, margarine or shortening.

Regardless of the source, limit total fat intake to less than 20% of calories per serving.

You’ll have to do a few calculations and since labels aren’t standardized over the world, you’ll need one of two formulas.

1. In the United States

Food labels show the number of calories from fat per serving. To determine if the food fat content is acceptable or not, simply divide the number of calories from fat by the number of calories per serving. If the number is less than .20, you’re good to go. Simple as that.

Example: Let’s imagine that you have a food item that has 270 calories per serving with 25 calories coming from fat. To see if this food has an acceptable fat content level, you do the following calculation: 25 calories from fat/270 calories per serving = .09. (An acceptable fat level.)

Another alternative is to simply multiply the number of calories per serving by .20. This will give you the number of calories from fat you can eat. In this case, 20% of 270 equals 54. In other words, you can eat up to 54 calories in fat. Since only 25 calories come from fat, this particular food “passes” the fat test.

2. Outside the US

Labels will only show the total number of calories and the total grams in fat per serving. To arrive at the total number of calories in fat per serving, you need to add an extra calculation and first multiply total fat in grams by 10.

Example: Using the same numbers as in our first example, it will read 2.5 grams of fat per serving. To get the number of calories in fat per serving, you multiply by 10. So you would have 2.5 grams of fat per serving * 10 = 25 calories of fat per serving. Now just follow the example above, dividing calories from fat by calories per serving.

(Note: 1 gram of fat has 9 calories, but to make the math easier, we followed the food industry example and used 10 as our multiplier. For more accurate results, multiply by 9.)  


You might be surprised to learn that less than 10% of the salt in American diets comes from the shaker on the table and added during cooking at home. Most sodium is hidden in packaged foods.

How much sodium does the human body really need? For healthy people, it’s as little as 125 milligrams a day.

If all you eat is fresh fruit and vegetables, you’ll get 3-4x that.

Bottom line? We really don’t need to add extra sodium to our diet.

When you choose a packaged food, it’s really important to check the sodium content (and the rule also applies for gourmet salts – e.g. smoked sea salt, pink Hymalayan salt, as they are no healthier).

  • A Good Rule of Thumb: The sodium content in milligrams should be at a one-to-one ratio – or LESS – with the calories per serving. It’s easy to calculate because both are shown right on the label. Of course, we prefer zero sodium.


You always want to avoid products with added sugar. Like salt, the vast amount of sugar in most diets comes from hidden sources.

But some packaged foods add sugars for flavor, binding, and so on.

  • What to Avoid: Look at the first 3-5 ingredients on the label. You don’t want to see any sugars among those top ingredients. If you see high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, fructose, evaporated cane juice, agave, molasses, maple syrup or honey, simply put it back on the shelf.  The same goes for gourmet sugars – e.g. coconut sugar, cocoa vanilla sugar, Bourbon black walnut sugar.


Despite the recent hype, the human body needs carbs. Where we run into trouble with carbs is when we’re eating the wrong kind. Here’s what to look for and what to avoid.

  • Say Yes to Intact Grains: Look for the FDA approved words for whole grains – “whole,” “cracked,” “stone ground,” “sprouted,” and “rolled.” For example: whole grain flour, cracked wheat, rolled oats, and stone ground corn.  The words “brown rice” count as a whole grain.  Wheat berries and bulgur are also intact grains.
  • Say No to Refined Carbs: Steer clear of bleached, white flours and be aware of words like “enriched” and “fortified”. (Intact grains don’t have to be enriched or fortified.)

Some Final Thoughts

  • Fiber: Choose foods with plenty of fiber. At least 2-3 grams per serving.
  • Cholesterol: None. Zero. Zip. Unless the label says 0 milligrams, don’t eat it.
  • Calories: Packaged foods can also pack in the calories. And it’s easy to eat too much of a food that’s convenient to grab on the go or prepare in minutes. So tread carefully around packaged food calories.

Of course, fresh fruits and vegetables don’t need ingredient labels.

On most days, you should fill your plate with plenty of fresh and frozen vegetables (remember your starches!) legumes and intact (whole) grains.

As much as possible, avoid packaged foods (even minimally processed foods).

But when you DO find yourself faced with eating something from a box, can, or bag, stick to minimally processed choices that follow these guidelines.

  • Less than 20% of calories from fat
  • No trans fat
  • No cholesterol
  • No added oil
  • No added sugar
  • 2-3 grams of fiber per serving
  • Less sodium than the number of calories per serving
  • Intact (whole) grains

And before you go, make sure to grab your own personal copy of the Food Label Cheat Sheet so you can use it next time you go shopping! Just click here to download—you can carry it in your wallet for easy reference at the grocery store!

Happy reading. And more importantly, healthy eating.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.