Reading labels

2.41 Reading Labels

In this video/article, we are going to discuss how to read a label to be sure that the food item you are looking is healthy for you.

First and foremost, it is absolutely critical to say that the healthiest foods that you can eat…DO NOT HAVE A LABEL! Fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains/nuts/seeds sold in bulk do not require labeling. Whole unprocessed plant foods are the best foods you can get to promote heart health. They are free of cholesterol and very low in saturated fat. They will have an abundance of nutrients including vitamins/minerals and health promoting fiber. Your diet should consist mainly or exclusively of whole plant foods. Trying to move away from the “reductionist” way of thinking of individual nutrients in food and thinking about simply eating real whole foods is critical.

Having said that…our society and scientific community is too far along into examining individual nutrients so it needs to be discussed. Always remember that these individual nutrients that we discussed previously really need to come from real food, not from supplements unless there is a significant verifiable deficiency on a blood test that is not able to be corrected by eating specific whole plant foods or a valid medical reason to take a specific supplement.

Glad we got that out of the way. Now lets start looking at some labels. We will break it down section by section starting with serving sizes, calories then macronutrients and individual micronutrients.

One quick note. The percent daily value will be reported for most of the nutrients on a label based on recommendations from the Food and Drug Administration. Keep in mind that these recommendations are not ideal for preventing and reversing heart disease (i.e. cholesterol and saturated fat should be ideally zero or close to zero, but they allow way too much). They also assume a 2000 calorie per day diet. For vitamins/minerals, the percentages reported are frequently what is needed to prevent a deficiency. Do not worry if you exceed 100% of specific vitamins or minerals especially when eating whole plant foods. When eating a variety of whole plant foods we will not need to worry about getting all we need as we have discussed before. If you wanted you could track your macronutrient or micronutrient intake for a week or so on to see how you are doing, but it is not necessary.

Here is what the newly designed nutrition labels look like:

Serving Size

Perhaps the most important part about label reading is understanding serving size. If you have the wrong perspective on the serving size then all of the rest of the label analysis will be completely off. If you are going to completely analyze a label the first thing to go to is the serving size.

This is frequently manipulated by the food industry to make their product look healthier. Specifically, if a serving size is made to be very low (such as processed breakfast cereal stating 1/2  or 3/4 cup serving size), then the number of calories and other unhealthy nutrients (i.e. cholesterol/sodium/sugar) that they can report on the label will appear very low. Think about it though…who eats only 1/2 cup of breakfast cereal? These mind games work well and are used all over the place in other industries. A good example is how gas stations tell you a gallon of gas is $2.999…saying it is actually $3.00 makes you think it is significant more expensive and you will be less likely to chose that location to get gas.

Be sure to understand the perspective of the serving size. A serving size of nuts is 1 ounce. Again, who eats only 1 ounce? Thus when thinking about an individual food label, you should actually estimate how much of that food you will actually be eating per serving, not what the food manufacturer wants to report as a serving size. If you expect to eat double what the label calls a serving size…then you will have to double everything else on the label (multiply by 2) including unhealthy nutrients (i.e. cholesterol/saturated fat) and healthy nutrients (i.e. fiber/vitamins).

It should also be mentioned that you will notice when looking at serving size that sometimes it is reported in many different ways. Be sure to understand grams (g), ounces (oz), cups, teaspoons and tablespoons. Have the right perspectives on these measurements. If something is reported only in grams, many Americans will have a hard time understanding how much that really is. Also, sometimes labels will say something like the serving size is “1 filet” or “1 package”. That does not help at all and makes figuring out the label much more difficult.

Lastly it is helpful to know how many servings are in each package or container. This does not effect our calculations much, but think about things like a container of oil which may have 200 servings or even a container of peanut butter which may have 20 servings.


The importance of understanding calorie balance was discussed previously as was calorie density. Now how do we read a label for calories?

This one is not too tricky as long you understand the serving size issue we just talked about. The number of calories will be clearly marked as will the number of calories from fat.

Perhaps more important that the overall number of calories in the food item is the calorie density, especially if your goal it weight loss. Do not obsess over it, but if you are questioning if something has too many calories for you, then see how many calories are in an item per pound. Most people will want to at least be under 500 calories per pound. Unfortunately this number is not on labels.


The types of fat and the importance of fat was previously discussed in detail here. We know that we want a low fat diet (less than 20% of total daily calories for sure) to prevent heart disease and very low fat diet (10% or less) to reverse heart disease. Now how do we look at the label to be sure what we are eating will get us there?

The numbers reported on a label relating to fat include the calories from fat (sometimes reported) as well as the total fat, saturated fat and trans fats reported in grams.

To find the percentage of calories from fat in a specific food item, just do a quick calculation in your head or use the calculator on your smartphone. Take the calories from fat and divide by the total number of calories in the item. Then multiply by 100 to get the percentage. If the number of calories specifically from fat is NOT on the label, just take the total number of grams of fat (g) and multiply by 9 since we know fat is 9 calories per gram. When on a heart disease reversal diet we want the percentage of calories from fat to be 10% or less. Not many packaged food items meet this criteria you will see due to added oils or nuts/seeds.

Underneath the total fat will be the amount of saturated fat and trans fats. Saturated fats should be zero or close to zero ideally. Unsaturated fats are not reported, but could be calculated (don’t worry about it) by subtracting the saturated fat from total fat. However this will not tell you if the unsaturated fat is mono or polyunsaturated or omega-3/omega-6. These are not able to be determined by a label. Do not get caught up in this. Just eat your variety of whole plants.

Here is an example of the label of a salmon filet. Lets look at the fat:


Remember we want dietary cholesterol to be zero. None at all. So reading labels for this should be very easy. If the label does not say zero by cholesterol…then put it back.

Cholesterol only comes in animal based foods, but even if you are getting a packaged food or prepared food that seems to be plant based, still look at the nutrition facts or label. Dairy may sneak in there. One great example is the oatmeal at McDonalds. Remember the food industry does not care about your health. McDonalds adds cream to their oatmeal completely destroying any health benefits it can give you! So you will see there is cholesterol in McDonalds oatmeal.


Sodium, otherwise known as salt, is added to many foods. It will be reported on labels in milligrams (mg). A general rule is that you want the amount of sodium in your food to be equal to or less than the number of calories. Most people eat about 2000 calories per day. Well…if you follow this rule then you will get 2000 mg of sodium or less per day!

Restricting sodium is more important in patients with hypertension and heart failure, so keep that in mind. Having a little higher salt in your diet and eating 100% plants is better than trying to restrict salt so much that you are not able to maintain a plant based diet long-term. The same is not true for oil which needs to be restricted much more vigorously.


There will be three numbers (soon to be 4) reported on a label for carbohydrates. The total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars and soon “added sugar” will be reported. The total carbohydrates is found by adding up dietary fiber, sugars and the “complex carbohydrates” in a food item.

Remember not to worry at all about how many total carbohydrates are in a specific food. A high carbohydrate diet is the healthiest as long as the source of those carbohydrates are from whole, unrefined plant foods. Refined carbohydrates need to be avoided at all cost, contrary to USDA recommendations that 50% of your carbohydrates can be nutrient poor, calorie dense processed/refined carbohydrates.

Sugars in general are not all that bad for you especially if they come from whole plant sources like fruit. The key to seeing on a label if a food is healthy is not how many grams of sugar, but the source of the sugar. Ingredient lists can hide sugar in 61 different ways. Added sugar is not good for you, unless the amounts are small.

Remember though, diets high in sugar in general do not cause diabetes type II. Diabetes is a fat problem.

When looking at fiber, we want as much as possible! A good way to tell if a food product has been “refined” is the fiber content. If there is zero fiber, then it was likely refined. Plants have fiber, so there should be at least some in every product you buy. Even foods labeled as “whole grains” can sometimes partially be processed removing some of the fiber. Therefore, ideally a healthy food would have a ratio of total carbohydrates to fiber of 5:1 or less. Here are some examples. Look at whole wheat bread and you will rarely find a ratio of 5:1. Some of this problem is from added sugar that increases the total carbohydrate number and some is from the fact that fiber is stripped partially from these foods to improve texture and shelf life. You will find some sprouted grain breads that meet this criteria like this one:

Most cereals will not have a good ratio of total carbohydrates to fiber, but there some. Uncle Sam which adds whole flax seeds has a great total carbohydrate to fiber ratio as we see here where the ratio is less than 4:1


Reading protein on a label is quite simple. It will be reported in the number of grams. It will not break protein down into animal protein or plant protein. You can read ingredient lists though to see if the amount of protein in a packaged food is being artificially increased by adding whey protein or another protein source. You do not need or want a high protein diet, so this would not be good. Many food items will advertise how it is high in protein or extra protein added. Avoid these foods as they do not promote good health, especially if animal based proteins are present.

Vitamins and Minerals

The main vitamins and minerals reported include iron, calcium, vitamin D and potassium. Labels will also report other nutrients, especially when companies want to brag about how healthy their product is. If you see 100% of multiple different vitamins, like in multi-grain cheerios, then you know they are “enriching” the product by adding vitamins/minerals in:

As you know eating an abundance of whole plant foods gets you all the vitamins and minerals you need (except vitamin B12) as we discussed in the micronutrient video and you can track your micronutrients on

Many foods such as plant milks and cereals (like above) will be fortified with vitamin B12. Otherwise, if you see vitamin B12 present suspect that an animal based ingredient such as dairy may be present.


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