It can often be a bit confusing to read a nutrition label and to fully understand what the descriptions on the box is trying to convey. Here are a few of the basics on how to read food labels to help inform you to make the best decisions for your family.

First, lets discuss a few terms….

USDA Organic

My favorite term on a box. For a product to be certified USDA organic, it’s required to meet specific standards:

  • Organic crops cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge.
  • Organic crops cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated.
  • Animals must eat only organically grown feed and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics.
  • Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (hoofed animals, including cows) must have access to pasture.
  • Animals cannot be cloned.

If you see a USDA Organic stamp on an item, ensure the company includes where it is certified. For example, It will say USDA Organic (stamp), certified by XYZ on their product. Here is a link to search the organic integrity database of the certifier approving the stamp of USDA Organic.

USDA Inspected

A USDA inspection seal means that your food meets certain quality standards and has been inspected and graded by USDA employees. Each inspection should include a code for the producing establishment. Meat and eggs are graded by a letter-based system regarding quality and size.

Country of Origin labeling

Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is require by the US for meats such as chicken, seafood, including produce and some nuts. This basic information provides which country food was produced.

Treated with Irradiation

I know what you’re thinking…. What the heck, radiation on food?! Ionizing radiation can extend shelf life and improve the quality and safety of foods. The idea behind irradiated food is to destroy bacteria by exposing them to free radicals thus protecting against food born illness. National and international organizations have concluded irradiated food is safe. I have not done enough research to be for or against this. There has been some research that food irradiation causes minimal changes to the chemical composition of some foods BUT its not natural so I cant speak on this with out more research. Most people do not know whether the foods they are eating have received a dose of ionizing radiation because most places do not require labeling such as restaurants. However, grocery stores should have irradiated food labeled with a radura symbol.

4 rules to consider when looking at Nutrition facts

Step 1: Claims on the front

Step 2: Serving Size, Total Calories, Percent Daily Values

Step 3: Nutritional Facts/Terms

Step 4: The additives

1) The claims on the front of the container/box

  • Cage free eggs- Most chickens are raised without cages but it says nothing about other living conditions.
  • Free range- These labels are regulated by the USDA for poultry meat ONLY.
  • No hormones- This means that animal received no hormones over its lifetime.
  • No antibiotics- This means that the animal received no antibiotics over its lifetime. Antibiotic usage on farm animals is linked to antibiotic resistance and has increasingly become a health issue.
  • Grass fed- This means that the animals primary source of food comes from grass and not grains or corn. However, there are no government standards for this label
  • Pasture raised- This generally means animals spent time outdoors on pasture. This is a traditional farming method on smaller farms compared to factory-farmed animals. Again, there are no government standards for this label.
  • Natural- Certain items listed as natural are not USDA regulated. However, the government defines natural as products cannot contain artificial flavors, preservatives or other artificial ingredients. Also, there is no information on how the animal is raised, what they are fed, including antibiotic and/or hormone usage.
  • Seafood labels- There is no USDA standard for organic sea food certification.
  • Fresh- When an item is labeled fresh, it only indicates it was not frozen until it reaches zero. It does not describe if there has been a processed or preservative added. The USDA does not regulate this label.
  • NON-GMO vs non-GMO Project verified- GMO is genetically modified organisms used to alter the genetic material in plants and meats for the purpose of food. Many countries require GMO labeling on foods. The United states and Canada do not require labeling. However, the United states has started the process toward mandating GMO labeling on food items. Non–GMO Project Verified is a standard set fourth to require testing and traceability to verify the claim. A generic non-GMO claim is not reliable because there is no standard of testing to verify the claim.
  • Whole Grains: Many bread and pasta products claim to be “whole wheat”, but the first ingredient in the ingredient list is often wheat flour (AKA refined flour).

2) Serving Size, Total Calories, Percent Daily Values

  • Serving size- The number of servings in the package. The serving size is calculated by using the Recommended Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC) that the FDA created.
  • Total Calories- This provides a measurement of how much energy you get from a serving of food
  • Percent daily values- The percentage of the daily value for each nutrient in a serving of food. This helps you determine if the food is high or low in nutrients

Example-Goldfish crackers

Serving size- 55 pieces; Calories-140, DV%- Calcium 4%

So for every 55 pieces consumed, you will have obtained 140 calories. The daily value of calcium in your diet from the 55 goldfish is 4%. If you consumed 110 pieces (doubled) then you would double the calories to 280. A 4% daily value of calcium is low in nutrients of calcium.

3) The nutrients facts

A Nutrition Facts table. This gives you information about:

  • Fat- Might also be listed as beef fat, butter, shortening, coconut, palm oil, cream, lard, vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils, or partially hydrogenated fats and oils. Total fat includes saturated and unsaturated. Foods high in unsaturated fat are generally vegetable oils, nuts, and fish. Unsaturated fats are often called “good fats” because they don’t raise cholesterol levels. Saturated fat generally comes from animal products like butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, meats and processed foods.
  • Cholesterol- A fatty wax substance found in your cells from foods such as fatty meat and full fat dairy.
  • Sodium- Might be listed as baking powder, garlic salt, onion salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG), brine, rock salt, sea salt, sodium bisulfate, or soy sauce.
  • Carbohydrates- There are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches and fiber.
  • Sugar- Might be called brown sugar, cane and beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, fruit juice concentrates, honey, molasses, maltodextrin, agave syrup, malt syrup, maple syrup, and syrup. Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, occur naturally in foods such as fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) or come from refined sources such as table sugar (sucrose) or corn syrup.
  • Protein
  • Vitamins and Minerals- Includes vitamin A, Bs, C, D and minerals such as potassium, calcium, sodium and zinc just to name a few. Some are no longer required to be on the label.

Other nutritional facts:

  • Calorie free: Less than five calories per serving.
  • Low-calorie: Less than 40 calories
  • Low cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Fat free/sugar free: Less than ½ gram of fat or sugar per serving.
  • Low sodium: 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
  • Low-fat: 3 grams or less of fat
  • Lean: Meat, poultry, or seafood that has not been ground and contains 10% or less fat
  • High in/Excellent source of: Provides 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving.
  • Good source of: Provides at least 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.


 20 ingredients to stay away from…..

  • BHA and BHT
  • Propyl Gallate
  • Sucralose
  • Potassium sorbate
  • Artificial flavors and coloring
  • High fructose syrup
  • Acesulfame-K
  • Sugar
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Enriched wheat
  • Corn
  • Canola oil
  • Soy
  • Propyl gallate
  • Sodium chloride
  • Aspartame
  • Polysorbate 80
  • Potassium and sodium benzoate
  • Hydrogenated or fractionated oils

What other labels am I missing that you find concerning? Please share your thoughts on labeling here in the US?

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