Here’s why you shouldn’t always trust the front of the food package you buy

Clinical dietitian explains the aspects of a Nutrition Facts label

Your diet is fundamental for maintaining a healthy lifestyle or controlling certain conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the foods we eat. You can do that by reading labels and understanding what you are truly consuming.

Bentley Danello
Bentley Danello, RD, LD, education specialist in disease management and registered dietitian at St. Joseph’s/Candler

Among the most important things to look for on food packages are food claims, serving size and ingredients.

Food claims on the front don’t always match expectations you might find on the back.

“Just because something says it’s low-fat or lower in sugar doesn’t mean you shouldn’t turn it around and see what they really mean,” says Bentley Danello, RD, LD, education specialist in disease management and registered dietitian at St. Joseph’s/Candler. “It might be reduced from the regular product. If the regular product has 100 grams of sugar, the reduced version may still have 70 grams so you have to turn it over and see what those food claims are.”

Danello also encourages everyone to pay attention to serving sizes. Just because you think something is a healthy option doesn’t mean it is.

“Sometimes you think it looks healthy and great but then you turn it over and realize you can only have a third of it,” Danello says. “Be mindful of how much of a serving you are getting.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires and regulates most food labels. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service regulates labels for meat and poultry products.

Danello recommends avoiding as much processed foods as possible and opting for fresh or flash frozen. However, not all canned and box products can be avoided so it’s important to read labels and understand what they are telling you.  

Let’s break down the Nutrition Facts label:

Serving Size

The calorie and nutrient information on the label applies to one serving. The label indicates how many total servings are in the product. If you eat more than one serving, you get more calories and nutrients. In this example, a serving size is 2/3 of a cup and the package has eight servings. If you eat more than 2/3 cup of the product, you will eat more than 230 calories.Nutrition Label


The energy you get from food is measured in calories. Knowing how many calories are in each food item you eat allows you to calculate your total daily intake. Eating too many calories leads to weight gain so you want to be sure to choose foods that help you get the nutrients you need without going over your daily calorie goal.

“Be mindful of the whole picture of what you are eating,” Danello says. “For a meal, I usually tell people, depending on what they are going through, to have meals between 400 and 500 calories and snacks between 100 to 200 calories.”

Total fat, saturated fat and trans fat

Your goal should be to eat as few saturated and trans fats as possible. You do need unsaturated, or heart-healthy, fats in your diet (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), but only in small amounts. Here are some other tips:

  • Choose foods with less than five grams of total fat per serving. For example, if someone needs to eat 2,000 calories per day, 50 to 75 grams per day is a good range. Talk to your physician or dietitian about how many calories you should consume a day based on your dietary needs and goals.
  • Choose foods with less than two grams per serving of saturated fat and zero grams of trans fat. Saturated fat and trans fat are not heart-healthy. A person who needs to eat 2,000 calories per day should eat no more than 11 to 15 grams of saturated fat in one day.
  • Pay attention to ingredients listed on the label. If a food contains partially hydrogenated oils then it has trans fat. Even if it has less than half a gram per serving, the label may still say trans fat-free.

Related Article: Six foods to add, six foods to avoid in a heart-healthy diet


Dietary cholesterol should not be confused as the same thing as the cholesterol that clogs arteries. However, foods high in cholesterol can cause blood levels of cholesterol to rise. The main sources of dietary cholesterol are animal products.

“We tend to overeat our meats and other animal products and that’s the main way we consume cholesterol,” Danello says. “I always tell people to try more of a plant-based approach to their diet. If you try to incorporate more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and having a meatless meal once a week it can help with excess cholesterol.”

You should eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. If you have heart disease, you should aim for less than 200 milligrams per day.


Look for foods that are low in sodium. Each day, eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, or talk to your doctor or dietitian to set a limit, especially if you have a history of high blood pressure. Danello recommends that if a single product has more than 300 milligrams of sodium per serving put it down and look for another product.

Total carbohydrate, sugars and dietary fiber

Total carbs include simple sugars, complex carbs, such as starch, and fiber. Be sure to pay attention to total carbs, not just the sugars, because all carbohydrates affect blood sugar levels. You want to consume more high-fiber foods. Foods containing five grams or more of dietary fiber are considered high-fiber foods. However, you want to subtract half of the fiber grams from the total carbs when you are counting. Your dietary fiber goal should be 25 to 30 grams a day.


Most of us get enough protein in our diets but we don’t always make the healthiest choices. Look for lean protein foods that are lower in calories, saturated fats and cholesterol, such as lean chicken, nuts, green leafy vegetables, fish, especially salmon, beans and legumes and avocado. The average women should aim for around 45 grams of protein per day while men can consume up to 56 grams.

% Daily Value Guide

The % Daily Value (DV) tells you the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving in terms of the daily recommended amount. As a guide, if you want to consume less of a nutrient, such as saturated fat or sodium, choose foods with a lower % DV – five percent or less. If you want to consume more of a nutrient, such as fiber, seek foods with a higher % DV – 20 percent of more.


Now that you have a better idea of what the label contents mean, it’s important to not forget about the ingredients list.

Danello advices the fewer ingredients the better and if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, you may want to skip eating that product.

“Usually if it has a long list of ingredients that’s usually when you can’t pronounce things anymore,” Danello says.

“It’s also important to know that ingredients are listed in descending order so the first ingredient is the largest component of the product and it goes in descending order to what is the smallest amount used,” Danello adds. “If sugar is the first ingredient listed you know to steer clear.”

Let’s look closer at sugar. Sugar is easily disguised in an ingredient list. Keep an eye out for these terms that mean added sugar:

  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Sugar molecules ending in “-ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose)
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Malt sugar
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Syrup

“Whatever it is you are trying to achieve with your health just be extra conscious,” Danello says. “If you are diabetic, be cautious with your carbs. If you have heart conditions, you want to keep fat and sodium under control. For the average person trying to stay healthy, it’s always good to look at labels and be mindful of what you are consuming.”

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