Nutrition Label Reading 101: Sodium, Fats, and Serving Size

HealthGal Health Guide
  • If you've already checked out Part One of this discussion, you know that my goal is to help you to make a quick assessment about the many foods you encounter in the supermarket (especially processed foods), so that you know whether to grab it and assess the label a bit more, or leave it and move on.  I've covered "initial decisions," and "front of package claims."  Now let's look at sodium, fats and serving size/calories per serving.



    Experts all are in agreement that the American diet is too sodium heavy.  There is more than one daily guideline though, for total salt intake.  Targeting a goal of “at or below 2,000 mgs. of sodium daily” is considered a primary health goal for most healthy individuals.  Some groups, including the American Heart Association would like individuals — especially those with heart disease, diabetes or hypertension to aim even lower, to a daily goal of 1,500 mgs of sodium. 

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    If you eat a lot of processed foods, fast foods, or take out foods, you will struggle to meet those strict guidelines.  If you mostly eat fresh foods, or prepare foods yourself, so that you control the ingredients, you will have a fighting chance to meet the goals.  You need to read labels to see just how much sodium is in a serving size, and you then need to keep a running daily total of the salt you accumulate.  Foods notoriously high in sodium include breads, some cereals, pizza, deli meats, canned foods, frozen foods, condiments, sauces and soups.  A quick glance can determine when a food has half a day's worth of sodium (or more) in just one serving.  That's a "put it back on the supermarket shelf" food!



    I’ve written extensively about the different types of fats in our daily diets.  Trans fat free on a label should alert you to search for “stealth” trans fats, which can be found in the actual ingredient breakdown.  Partially hydrogenated fats are trans fats.  Saturated fats are fats derived from animals (think meat, dairy) and are found in any food containing ingredients sourced from meat or dairy.  If a dairy or meat product is labeled fat free, then it is usually free of saturated fats, as well as other fats.  Skim and non-fat milk are synonymous terms.  When it comes to dairy products like milk, the term “low fat” can mean either 2 percent or 1 percent fat.  Most health experts would prefer that Americans choose 1 percent or fat-free milk, and this also applies to most children over age 1. 


    Look for lean and extra lean when it comes to meat cuts to reduce the saturated fat content.  Foods that have naturally-occuring healthy omega-3 fatty acids like fish, flaxseed, nuts, and soybeans are preferable to choosing foods fortified with omega-3 fatty acids.  In addition to oily fish, nuts and seeds, the only higher fat foods you should include in your regular diet are foods like healthier oils (extra virgin olive oil, vegetable oils, nut oils), avocadoes, and soy foods like tofu and tempeh, which all contain healthier fats.  Even so, portion control is crucial when eating these types of foods.



    The debate over sugar in its natural form (like agave or honey) versus white sugar verus high fructose corn syrup continues.  Later this month in another sharepost,  I'll explore the latest debate on the HFCS, or high fructose corn syrup, debate.  Suffice it to say, Americans consume way too much sugar and it's used in a heavy-handed manner in everything.  All grain carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice, crackers, chips, popcorn, cereals) also break down into……sugar.  Fruit and vegetables also contain significant amounts of naturally occuring sugars.  The difference is when there is ample fiber present, like in fruit and vegetables or certain whole grains, to mitigate the release of sugar as you digest the food.  Fiber can help to slow down the entry of sugar into your bloodstream, which means more modulated blood sugar swings. 

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    A good rule to follow is that when it comes to cereal, shoot for a maximum of 10 grams of sugar per serving.  I would aim for an even lower amount per serving (4-8 grams) as a later goal, since it takes time to wean off of sweet flavors.  If sugar is one of the first five words in an ingredient label of any food, or mentioned several times, this food should be considered a treat food…..period.  Do scrutinize labels for the sugar amount per serving.  It's also important to note that gluten-free does not mean sugar free.  If you need a swap out ingredient for sugar, try cardamom and cinnamon to replace sweetness in oatmeal, muffins, and yogurt.


    Calories per serving and serving size

    Though most experts mention this first in label assessment, I don’t want you making this evaluation until the food product has passed muster on the other considerations.  A food product shouldn’t be in your shopping cart on a regular basis if it is too high in unhealthy fats, or sugars or salt, or if it has a number of strange chemical ingredients and preservatives.  And though inulin (often added to foods) is considered a fiber, it’s not equivalent to the soluble and insoluble fibers you find naturally in fruits, vegetables and certain whole grains.  It’s crucial that you understand the measured amount of a portion of a particular food, and how many portions or servings are in the bag or box.


    So pick up a food, make the quick evaluation, and decide whether to spend more time or move on to the next one.  If you want a primer on label dissection, you can check out the FDA website.  The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also has a great label-reading tutorial.


    Amy Hendel is a Physician Assistant and Health Coach with over 20 years of experience.  Noted author, journalist and lifestyle expert, she brings extensive expertise to her monthly shareposts.  Her most recent book, The 4 Habits of Healthy Families is available for purchase online, and you can watch her in action on her shows Food Rescue and What's for Lunch?  Sign up for her daily health tweets or catch her daily news report at


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Published On: February 03, 2014

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