Does This Label Make My Butt Look Fat?

There’s a battle brewing between the food industry and government over something that could have a major impact on your diet…the food label. I call it “shock and awe” versus “flattery will get you everywhere.”

Here’s what’s up. One of the best things you can do to improve your diet is to buy healthier foods, and the food label (if you use it!) is the one tool that can make that happen, whether you’re at the grocery store or restaurant.

Unfortunately, most Americans read  Nutrition Facts about as often as they read user’s manuals or the fine-print on their credit card bills. But some experts believe (me included) that the reason we don’t read labels is because they’re too confusing and not easily translating into anything practical…like what this all means for my meals and feeding a family.

To make the labels more user-friendly to encourage healthier shopping and eating, the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration and Institute of Medicine are working to devise a new food label. At the same time, the food industry is creating its own strategies for marketing nutrition on packages.

The problem: The food industry wants to accentuate the positive (Get it? Put a lid on the junk in the trunk) while the government health administrations want to take a “shock and awe” approach and scare us silly over the ginormous calories, heart-clogging sat fat ( fatty asses acids) and stroke-inducing sodium levels in what we’re about to buy.

I’m a label skimmer, and thankfully have the skills put the numbers on food labels into perspective. But I get lazy and often am gob-smacked and embarrassed when I more closely inspect some of the cereals and crackers in my pantry and find that they’re loaded with sugar and saturated fat, respectively.

Most people, like those who aren’t dietitians or nutritionists, don’t know a DV from the DMV, so how can we really use the nutrition jargon on labels to make healthier choices?

So, in order to help simplify the Nutrition Facts panel and food labels in general, I asked dietitians what is the one thing they recommend you look for on a food label before purchasing it. According to the nutrition experts, here’s  the top five, in order of importance:

1 and 2. Serving Size & Servings Per Package: Without looking at what a “serving” is supposed to be in the package, everything else on the label is irrelevant. This is the one thing that most consumers completely overlook until they realize that they just ate two, 450-calorie servings of pizza.  Oops.

Many packages appear like they would serve one, may have two or more portions. (This is one of the pet peeves of the FDA and IOM have about current packages that they want to change.) Having “servings per package” and “calories per package” boldly present on the front panel would help solve this issue.

3.Calories: That’s obvious. Many of us are overweight and virtually everyone has to be aware of calories, so be sure to look at it before buying.  As a general rule, consider that meals should be 450-650 calories and snacks less than 200 calories.

4. Saturated Fat: Try to choose foods that provide low numbers for saturated fat. Most women need no more than 15-17 grams sat fat per day. Full-fat cheese is the number one source in the US diet, followed by pizza so keep that in mind.

5.Sodium: You’ll quickly find out that the less processed a food, the lower the sodium will be. Watching sodium will automatically improve your diet as you’ll be eating more foods that are less processed or naturally fresh and sodium-free.

Happy label reading!



  1. says

    Great post! Only thing I would add, which I’m surprised you don’t have on here, is ingredients. It’s so important for people to look at the ingredients to see what is actually in the food they are buying. Can they pronounce the ingredients? Do they know what they are? What are the first 3 ingredients listed? (Those are the main ingredients in the product and in the food in the highest volume). These are important questions for consumers to ask themselves when shopping!
    – Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RD, CDN

  2. says

    Indeed Julie great post! And Jessica I definitely agree with you when looking at the entire package – the ingredient list is very important. But I think Julie was trying to id the most important points on just the Nutrition Facts panel itself. Nicely done!

  3. says

    A few things to consider…

    If it has a nutritional label, it’s probably in a box/bag/can, probably won’t go bad (ever really) and if it doesn’t go bad, well I wouldn’t recommend eating it. Exceptions? few and far….=) Pura Vida

  4. Drarka says

    One of my big pet peeves is trying to compare two things like cereals in store. No two boxes has the same serving size! This makes it very hard to compare between two different brand. I think serving sizes of things like that should be normalized. Since all the fat/carbs/proteins are given in grams, a serving of cereal should always be for example given as 100g with a volume equivalent in cups for people to have a better idea of what it represents (its easier for people to visualize volume than mass). It would be easy to compare a cereal with 5g of fat per 100g serving to an other with 15g of fat for the same serving size.

  5. AshleyF says

    One of the issues I have when reading labels is the daily value percentage. How do I know what range I should be in? For example, I read somewhere that less than 20% (sodium for example) is a good goal. Is that a good estimate for most foods when it comes to the fat and sodium?

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