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How To Read A Food Label

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Food Label

How To Read A Food Label

I’m sure you have heard that saying, “Shop the perimeter of the grocery store.” Typically, the unprocessed, whole foods are located around the perimeter, but so are many other foods. There are also quality whole foods located in the aisles. While I recommend my clients and patients eat whole foods that they can imagine growing in the ground (or as Michael Pollan would say- food his great-great-grandmother would recognize), let’s be honest – most people don’t eat exclusively unprocessed foods. Whole foods should make up the bulk of the diet but we often end up buying processed foods for convenience. Who really has time to roll out homemade linguine?

Reading a food label can be overwhelming! Labels present information based on overall weight, a percentage of “daily value,” in calories, and in grams. No wonder it’s confusing! So I’ve put together 3 “Food Rules” and 5 basic tips and tricks to make label reading simple and quick. Let’s get started with the “Food Rules.”

Rule 1: Never, ever believe anything on the front of any product!

Ex: There is a very popular oil spray that claims to be “100% fat free”, but oil is a 100% fat product, so how is this possible? They make the serving size so small (a fraction of a second spray) that they are legally allowed to round down to zero and say that a 100% fat product is “fat-free”.

Rule 2: Always read the nutrition label and list of ingredients.

It’s important to know what chemicals, preservatives, additives, and other man-made ingredients are being added to your food. Who would ever think that bread, which is normally flour, yeast, water, and salt, could now contain over 30 ingredients – including high fructose corn syrup??

Rule 3: Check the serving size and do some math.

Ex: The label on an 8oz bottle of Coca-Cola states 110 calories and 30 grams of sugar, but it’s 2.5 servings. I don’t know about you but I don’t know anyone who splits their 8oz Coke into 2.5 servings! If you do some math, that 8oz coke is now 275 calories, but more importantly it has 75 grams of sugar!! I know that envisioning what 75 grams of sugar looks like is hard so the next time you’re in the kitchen measure out 75 grams of white sugar and prepare to be shocked!  


Now for the tips and tricks!

Fat: We need fat to live but quality is more important than quantity so check the ingredient list.

Avoid “bad fats”:

  1. Animal fats: lard, butter, chicken fat, dairy, cheese
  2. Saturated vegetable fat: palm oil, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter
  3. Man-made saturated fat: partially hydrogenated oil, margarine, shortening


Salt: Your body needs some sodium to maintain fluid balance and assist with nerve conduction and muscle contractions but too much sodium can be dangerous. When patients are diagnosed with hypertension most doctors will ask them to stop using salt. The problem is that only ~10% of the salt in the American diet comes from the salt shaker and what you add while cooking. ~90% of our salt intake is hidden in processed foods. The American Heart Association recommends a daily allowance for salt of 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams but most Americans get 3,400mg daily so decreasing your salt by 10% won’t do much. Having a hard time imagining how much that is? 1 tsp of salt is 2,300 mg. That means if you have 1 tsp of salt today you are consuming almost double the lower daily limit.   

Use a 1:1 ratio of calories to milligrams of salt as a good balance.  

Ex: A 200 calorie product should not have much more than 200mg of sodium.  


Sugar: Your body needs sugar to function, for example, the human brain uses sugar as fuel and burns around 500 calories a day! Again, it’s the source of sugar and the quality that is important – an orange and a Snickers bar provide very different nutrition profiles.   

Remember, ingredients are listed according to WEIGHT. So companies will often use 2 tricks to move the added sugars lower on the list:

  1. Use dehydrated sweeteners to make them lighter (ex: evaporated cane juice or dehydrated honey)
  2. Add many different sugars each in smaller amounts instead of just one type


Make sure sugar is not listed in the first 5 ingredients (even better- avoid added sugars anywhere on the list).

Examples: sugar, brown sugar, molasses, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, coconut sugar, date sugar, corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, galactose, maltose, sorbitol, powdered sugar, etc.


Carbohydrates: Carbs have been under fire lately (for decades really). However, we are missing one key descriptor – processed vs. unprocessed. Carbohydrates are found in healthy, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, etc. Carbs are also found in processed form in bagels, pasta, muffins, crackers, sugar sweeteners, etc. Both are carbohydrates, however the quality of the carb (ex: processed vs. unprocessed) and what is accompanying that carb (ex: fiber vs. added fat and sugar) makes a huge difference for your health! ~90% of the carb intake in the US is white flour, white rice, and white pasta. If pasta is a staple is your cooking check out the amazing options for alternative pastas (my favorites are mung bean pasta and lentil pasta). You want to look at the ingredient list again here.

Look at the ingredient list for words like “whole”, “rolled”, or “stone ground”

Ex: “organic, unbleached semolina” or “wheat crackers” are both just white flour


Fiber: We used to think fiber just helped clean out the colon like a scrub brush and moved our digestion process along but now we know fiber is the food for our gut bacteria. Your gut bacteria are crucial to good overall health and immune function. The USDA found that the average American eats ~15 grams of fiber daily and the American Heart Association recommends at least 30 grams daily. This means most Americans are only getting half of the recommended fiber. What are the best sources of fiber? Fruits, veggies, and whole grains!

Use a 3 grams per 100 calories rule as the minimum amount of fiber.

Ex: A 200 calorie serving should have at least 6 grams of fiber.


When in doubt, each foods with only whole food ingredients that you can read, pronounce, and imagine growing in its natural form.

To your health and happiness!

Sabine Gempel, DPT, PT

Certified in Plant-Based Nutrition



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