What Do All Those Nutrition Labels Mean?

Shopping for healthy food can be a daunting task. Deciphering the rhetoric of food labels can make it even trickier. What is the technical meaning or significance of each label? If you are looking to decrease your cholesterol intake, should you purchase low cholesterol foods, or reduced cholesterol foods? Mastering the lingo will help you develop the kind of precision and expertise needed to shop healthily.

Watching Your Sodium Intake

Essential though sodium is to the human body, most people consume 1.5 teaspoons a day; far more than the body needs to function healthily. Understanding what kinds of quantities nutritional facts are indicating is an essential component of monitoring your salt intake.   

  • Sodium-free products, rather than containing literally no sodium, simply contain less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving. 
  • Unsalted” or “no salt added” means that there is no salt added to the products during processing. This does not, however, mean that the product contains no salt, or even that it is sodium-free. 
  • Reduced or less sodium means that a product contains 25 percent less sodium per serving than the regular version. 
  • Light (or lite) in sodium: At least 50 percent less sodium per serving than the regular version
  • Sodium-free: Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving
  • Very low sodium: 35 mg or less of sodium per serving
  • Low-sodium: 140 mg or less of sodium per serving
  • Low-sodium meal: 140 mg or less of sodium per 3.5 ounces

Watching Your Caloric Intake

While the rigorous calorie-counter may enjoy closely examining the caloric content of each food item, nutritional labels can provide helpful reference points with certain key words. Watch out for these technical terms when browsing your food aisle:  

  • Calorie-free: Less than 5 calories per serving
  • Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
  • Low-calorie meal: 120 calories (or less) per 3.5 ounces
  • Reduced or less calories: At least 25 percent fewer calories per serving than the regular version
  • Light (or lite): Half the fat (or less) or a third of calories per serving of the regular version

Watching Your Fat Intake

Fat has a bad reputation. Nevertheless, fat is necessary to function properly. What makes monitoring its consumption trickier than other food substances, however, is the fact that there are different kinds of fat, and the body requires different amounts of each. Indeed, it is a mistake to uncritically adopt a low-fat diet, since unsaturated fats, such as monunsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fats, actually decrease disease risk. It is saturated fat that you want to watch out for. Too much ice cream, cheese, red meat or butter, can increase this kind of potentially harmful fat.  

  • Fat-free: Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving
  • Saturated fat-free: Less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat and less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving
  • Low-saturated fat: 1 g or less of saturated fat and 15 percent or less calories from saturated fat per serving
  • Low-fat: 3 grams or less of fat per serving
  • Reduced fat: At least 25 percent less fat per serving than the regular version
  • Light in fat: Half the fat per serving (or less) than the regular version

Watching Your Carbs

Nutrition labels usually include the amount of “total carbohydrates,” so it’s important to note that this includes all types of carbs. That includes fiber, complex carbohydrates and sugar. If you’re diabetic, this is important, because, according to the American Diabetes Association, “all types of carbohydrates can affect blood glucose,” not just sugar. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45-65 percent of your daily caloric intake be comprised of carbs. For example, if you’re on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, up to 1,300 of those calories should be from carbs.

  • Total carb numbers can be confusing. The best way to add them is to look at the total number of carbs on the label, then subtract the dietary fiber from that number for your net amount.
  • Fiber is a carbohydrate you should be looking to add, not subtract, from your diet. Women should aim for 25 grams per day; men for 38.