Instead of a Book, Pick Up Some Good Cans and Start Reading Labels


The environmental movement together with a need to understand what goes into our food and the desire to eat healthier, have resulted in a change in purchasing patterns. With the increased interest in what goes in our food, consumers are searching for information on such things as additives, genetically modified food, calorie content and related data. The actions of the FDA have simplified part of this attempt to discover the content of our food. Since the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990 and its enactment in 1994, Americans have had a reliable source of the basic content of our food.

What is Food Labeling?

Food labeling is a standardized practice in which the food product is required to sport specific information on explicit nutrients and nutritional content.1

What does a Food Label consist of?

The food label is divided into specific parts.2 These include the following three major components3:

  • Serving size- given in American measuring units then the metric equivalent
  • Calories per serving
  • nutrient information: this includes total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates (simple and complex), protein and specific vitamins/minerals

A label must provide you with this information as well as along the side, beside each component, the percentage of daily value (DV) of each per serving.

What to Look for on a Food Label

A label can be deciphered. All it requires is a little knowledge and some research. You may need to purchase a book on nutrition4 and on additives5. It may also be handy to carry around a magnifying glass so you can read the small print.

In general, follow these simple rules for selecting your products by what appears on the label. Begin by looking at the list of ingredients.

  • This section is not standardized as each product contains different ingredients. If it is long, chances are many of the ingredients are chemical additives. Your health and or your diet program may be at risk if you decide to purchase this product
  • If the list is short, it may or may not be healthy. Look at what the list is and see if it consists of additives or actual food before you make your decision
  • Ingredients appear according to amount. The first ingredient listed is the one that has the greatest quantity in the product. If, for example, water heads the list of ingredients, the product consists mainly of water.
  • The items at the bottom are those ingredients that are present in small amounts.
  • If the amounts are ¾ water to ¼ meat and the product is labeled meat, you are paying for a lot of water.

Generally only those ingredients that are required by law to be listed on the label are listed. So, you never really know if there are any other ingredients in the product that are not listed on the label.

You also need to be aware of statements or claims made on the labels of food products. Remember this is advertising. It does not always accurately reveal whether the product may or may not have additives and other questionable substances. This holds true, or particularly is valid, if the food item declares itself in bold letters to be an “ALL NATURAL PRODUCT” or that it contains “NO ARTIFICIAL PRESERVATIVES.” Always take time to read the label carefully to see if the ingredients support the claim.

Does Food Labeling have any Effect on Food Purchasing?

Research indicates that the use of food labels is an effective tool in selecting healthy food. Yet, a label is only as effective as the abilities and training of the individual who reads it. Findings by Hassan et. al and Mandel in 2010 reinforce this claim that food labeling can influence food purchasing.6 Mandel also discovered that age and exercise have an effect on the individuals in this trial by serving as influences in a weight loss strategy.7 Both researchers noted the importance of one factor in making label reading a success: label literacy. This is an essential part of being successful in weight loss programs and achieving a goal of healthy eating


Whenever you look at a food label, you are seeing a combination of nutritional or contents information and a piece of clever advertising. A food label may make you feel better, but its main purpose is to try to get you to buy the item. If you want to know whether the product is indeed healthy, you need to not only read, but also understand what the label is telling you.

If you are on a restricted diet program or weight control plan, you need to be able to decipher such things as calories, carbohydrates, protein and those ingredients provided at the bottom or side of the label in very tiny print. Failure to do so may result in you eating what you think is healthy and suitable for a calorie or protein or carbohydrate-reduce diet. In reality, the product is not heart smart or low in fat or indeed good for your dieting at all.


1 Neporent, L. and Schlosberg, S. (2005). The Fat-Free Truth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

FDA (2011). How to Understand and Use the Nutrition’s Fact Label. Retrieved from www.fda.gov/food/labelingnutrition/consumerinformation/ucm078889.htm.

3 Mayo Clinic (2011). “Nutrition Facts: An Interactive Guide to Food Labels.” Retrieved from www.mayoclinic.com/health/nutrition-facts/NU00293.

4 Beck, Leslie (2010). The Complete A-Z Nutrition Encyclopedia. Toronto: Penguin Books.

5 Farlow, C. N. (2007). Food Additives: A Shopper’s Guide To What’s Safe & What’s Not. Escondido, CA: Kiss For Health Publishing.

6 Hassan L. M.; Shiu, E. M. K. And Michaelidou, N. (2010). The Influence of Nutrition Information on Choice: The Roles Of Temptation, Conflict And Self-Control. Journal of Consumer Affairs. 44 (3): 499–515.

7 Mandal B. (2010). Use of Food Labels as a Weight Loss Behavior. Journal of Consumer Affairs. 44:516–27


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