Mastering Food Product Labels

by Grace Rivers, RDN, CDCES

You are in the store and have a new product in your hands. You want to try it but are a little hesitant about purchasing it. You are questioning if it will raise your blood sugar? Cholesterol level? Or will you be able to eat and enjoy it without consequence?

Mastering misleading food product labels

The front of the package touts claims such as plant-based, no added sugar, no cholesterol, and high in protein. It all seems like it will be an excellent food to add to your eating routine.

Before putting the product in your cart, you may want to review the nutrition facts panel (NFP) usually found on the back but could be along the side of the package.

What is on the nutrition facts panel (NFP)?

At the top of the panel, you will find the “servings per container,” which is essential because you may think you only have one serving, but there could be several.

In bold, you will find the “Serving size,” the size the manufacturer considers a serving. It’s important because all of the nutrients listed are for that quantity of the product. The serving size may be larger or smaller than what you will eat at a sitting. If so, you will need to calculate the nutrition information accordingly. For example, if the serving size is ½ cup, and you will eat 1 cup, you will need to double the amounts shown for calories and nutrients.

Then you have a listing starting with “Calories” – if you keep an eye on your calorie intake, this is where to look. Don’t worry if you are not a calorie counter; consider the nutrients on the list.

Skip down to “Saturated fats” because too many of these can lead to a rise in blood cholesterol which is a risk for heart disease. Keeping that number under 20 for an entire day is a healthier practice for your heart.

“Sodium” comes up next. If you are working to decrease sodium, keep 2400mg (per day) in mind or whatever number your doctor prescribed you to follow. Over the day, it continually adds up. That’s everything you eat from the morning until you go to bed.

“Total Carbohydrate” and “Added Sugars” are listed so you can decide how well this food is going to work for your meal plan. The total carbs will impact your blood sugar the most. Only consider the total carbs because added sugars are already figured into the total number of carbs. Don’t count them twice. If you are cutting back on added sugars, this information line is helpful. This section will also provide the supply of “Dietary Fiber” in that food. Be careful of amounts more than ten grams because a large quantity could cause stomach upset if your gut isn’t accustomed to it.

“Protein” supports your body’s structure, such as your bones, tendons, and muscles. Eating protein is vital to your health. Checking to see if the food is a good protein supplier helps with your decision-making process.

A couple of product examples


A delectable hazelnut and cocoa flavor spread with only a few ingredients.

Review the NFP, and you will find a high level of added sugars and little protein to keep your health at its best. As a spread, 22 total carb grams can be steep.

Better bet:

Stick with peanut butter for protein, only a few grams of added sugars, and a much lower carb content.

Silk Ultra

You may be looking for a plant-based milk to try. This carton flaunts claims of “unsweet,” “20 grams of protein per serving”, “plant-based,” “0 grams added sugar,” an “excellent source of calcium,” and a “source of complete protein.” Before purchasing, you check out the label.

From reading the NFP, you learn that the milk contains a whopping 180 calories for 1 cup! And it has three times the amount of sodium of your current beverage. You do the math to learn this product furnishes 70 calories more than your present morning milk. Over time, an increase like that will show a weight increase.

Better bet:

Silk Ultra is a soy beverage using soybeans, so you could read a few labels from the unsweet and original versions of soymilks to find the right one for you.

Making food decisions regarding your health provides you with protection. When you search for healthier foods to manage your blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure, reading labels can guide you, becoming second nature the more you do it.

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