Home Scholar's Desk The Importance of Food Label Literacy

The Importance of Food Label Literacy


By Dr. Lauri O. Byerley
Faculty Member, Sports and Health Sciences at American Public University

Have you tried to read a food label lately?  Wow! The label has lots of information and can be confusing. How do you decide if you want to eat that product? How do you know that nutrition claims such as, low fat, low sodium, and low calorie, or health claims, such as contains oat bran which can reduce the risk of heart disease, are real?

During the last several decades, food labels have included more information, like added nutrition and health claims. Manufacturers believed this would help sell their products by adding credibility and desirability. All of this makes it harder and harder for the consumer to make healthy eating choices.

Misleading Serving Size

Product labels can be misleading. One example is serving size. For example, you might assume a small bag of M&Ms it is one serving size. Yet, according to the nutrition label, the bag contains two servings. Have you ever tried to eat half a bag?

It is important to look at the serving size on the nutrition fact label because you could be doubling or tripling your calories without realizing it. The package may contain more servings than you think.

Whole Grain Claims

Here is another example of confusing labels –  the bread aisle at the grocery store. There are so many products that claim to be whole grain, but do they really contain whole grains? Does the dietary fiber information on the nutrition label mean that a product contains whole grain?

Dietary fiber does not equal whole grain. To make it more confusing, the package may state that a product contains whole grain, but the amount of whole grain may be small. To sort this one out, you have to look at the ingredient list to determine if the product truly contains a substantial amount of whole grain. The Whole Grains Council is a good source for identifying whole grain items.

Fat Content

The nutrition claims can be confusing. Some products truly meet the guidelines to be called “low fat” or “reduced fat.” Low fat products must have 3 grams of fat or less per serving. For a product to be reduced fat, it must contain 25 percent less fat than the original product.

Let’s use an oat-bran muffin as an example. According to the USDA Nutrient database for Standard Reference, one large oat bran muffin contains about 10 grams of fat.  If the muffin was labeled reduced fat, it would contain about 7.5 grams of fat, but that is still a lot of fat. The low fat muffin would have less fat than a reduced fat muffin. Most of us think an oat bran muffin is healthy. Using the nutrition fact label, the original oat-bran muffin would provide 15 percent of daily fat. That’s a lot of fat for a healthy muffin.

Your Best Defense

So how do safeguard yourself from misleading nutrition labels? Your best defense is to become educated. Use the package label to your advantage. The federal government requires nutrition facts and a list of ingredients on food packages. The FDA also has specific definitions for nutrition/health claim terms a manufacturer can use. You can use these to verify the claims a manufacturer makes on a label. Learn the facts about nutrition labels as well as nutrient and health claims.  Becoming educated will help you decipher food labels and the result will be healthier food choices.

[see also: Why Does Nutrition Education Matter?]


About the Author:

Dr. Lauri O. Byerley, Ph.D., LDN is a nutrition scientist, nutrition educator, and Registered Dietitian.  Her research expertise is diet and cancer, and sports nutrition. She has more than 30 peer-reviewed, original research articles in these areas.  She has several decades experience teaching a variety of nutrition courses at the college level.



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