Reading Food Product Labels

©  Katherine Poehlmann, PhD


The key to reading labels is not to look at the front of the package. That’s where you might find tempting words like “Low Fat”, “Sugar Free”, or “All Natural Ingredients”. What’s disturbing is that the food industry has lobbied the FDA to allow thousands of ingredients added to processed food that by law do not have to be listed.


Key things to look for on the ingredients label:


Multi-syllable chemicals. If you don’t recognize it, don’t put it in your mouth.


Fats. There are usually four types of fats listed on the label. The first two are BAD fats, the second two are GOOD (natural) fats. The bad fats clog your arteries, raise cholesterol, and make you fat. Aim for no more than 7% or 15 grams of saturated fat per day. Note that most fast foods, especially fried chicken and French fries, are loaded with trans fat, which is produced when liquid oil is made into a solid fat. Other sources of trans fat are processed foods (snack crackers, chips, etc.) and baked goods (cookies, cakes, donuts, etc.). Sources of good fats are oils from corn, cottonseed, safflower, soybeans, and sunflower; also walnuts, mayonnaise, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, and some salad dressings. An excellent resource on the topic is Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill by Udo Erasmus.


Carbohydrates (Carbs): This count, shown in grams, is important to those watching their weight. Carbs convert to sugar in the body. Net carbs equals the total carbs shown minus those grams listed as dietary fiber.


Refined sugar in any form, including high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, and glucose. Natural sugars from fruits are OK.


Artificial flavors and colorings. These are undesirable, useless chemicals.


Salt. The number of milligrams (mg) of sodium must be listed by law. Consume no more than 1500 mg per day for ages 19 to 50, no more than 1300 mg daily for ages 50 to 70, and 1200 mg maximum for those over 70. Restrict your intake even further if you have high blood pressure or diabetes.


Spices. A truthful label would list the actual names of spices.


Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Unfortunately, this is sometimes classified as a “spice”, so it may not be specifically listed. If you see “spice” (singular) it is likely MSG.


Enriched flour (white or wheat). This is depleted of all nutritional value. Chemicals or “vitamins” have been added. Look for organic wheat or other whole grain flour.


Soy protein isolate. This is an inorganic ingredient in protein shakes and food bars.


Allergens like peanuts, milk products, corn-based substances, soybeans, and wheat. Responsible manufacturers print specific warnings on their labels, but usually the consumer must wade through the ingredient list to find allergens.


Rules of thumb:


The first 3 or 4 ingredients make up the key substances in the product by weight. The shorter the list of ingredients, the more pure the product.


Just because a product is sold in a health food store doesn’t mean you don’t need to read the label.


Don’t assume the package contents equals one serving. Multiply all amounts by the number of servings. It may shock you to see, for example, that a package of microwave popcorn contains 2.5 servings, which means 2.5 times the calories and fats.


Hint: look for products labeled “Approved for Diabetics” since they contain limited salt and sugar. Guidelines can be found on This website is managed by the American Diabetes Association.




Dr. Poehlmann is the author of Rheumatoid Arthritis: The Infection Connection, available at and major bookstores, or click here to order now.



Click here for definitions of terms like “low fat” and “low sodium”.


Click here for some specific examples of labels with commentary.


For a related article, click here: “Healthy Eating”


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