Learning to Read Labels

When I put patients on a diet, I routinely ask them to look at the labels when they’re buying various products.  It is not uncommon, however, that people aren’t very efficient readers of food labels.  You know, that small black and white box of letters and numbers on the sides of food containers?  The reason I ask patients to read these is because it contains valuable information on it.  I like people to look at the carbohydrate content because this will be most reflective of whether it is a healthy food or not.  Foods with high carbohydrate content and high amounts of sugar are obviously not healthful.  After several months of reading labels it becomes very natural and you can actually begin to guess what the contents of certain foods are without even looking at the label.

The problem though is that the current food labeling system can be quite confusing.  There are a lot of people that don’t know what a calorie is.  There are a lot of people that don’t know the difference between fat, carbohydrate and protein.  There are a lot of people that don’t know that all three have profoundly different affects in the body when consumed.  Learning these are of utmost importance for being able to understand the nutrition label.

What is a calorie?

The definition of a calorie is a unit of heat equal to the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree at one atmosphere pressure.  Not helpful?  Didn’t think so, but that’s the definition.  Basically a food’s caloric content is measured using this definition and chemical process.  When speaking of food calories we are actually talking about kilocalories because there are other caloric measurements.  The basis of caloric measurements is based on gram calories or 1/1000 of a kilocalorie.  If we used gram calories as the standard, food would contain hundred of thousands of “calories” and would difficult to calculate caloric content.  So, kilocalories are used to measure food and the term -kilo is dropped from the word to give us simply a calorie.  Calories are measured in a ‘calorimeter.’ A substance can be combusted (literally burned) in the presence of oxygen, to measure the amount of heat generated per gram. From such basic measurements, and by extrapolation to mixtures of different ingredients, the ‘calorie count’ can be applied as a measure of the energy derivable from a food source.

Basically, what you need to remember is that a calorie is energy.  We use the energy, or calories, from our food to survive.  They allow us to pump blood, breath, think, etc.  Without calories we cannot survive.

What is Fat, Protein and Carbohydrate?

These are considered the macronutrients and they contain different amounts of calories.  Protein and carbohydrates both contain 4 calories per gram.  Fat contains 9 calories per gram.  Basically what this means is that any amount of fat contains a little more than twice the energy that the same amount of protein and carbohydrates does.  


Protein is used to do a lot of things in the body.  It is used for cell signaling, cell structure, enzymes, neurotransmitters, muscle function and many other things.  It supplies a small amount of energy when needed.  It is very important.


Fats play a vital role in maintaining healthy skin and hair, insulating body organs against shock, maintaining body temperature, and promoting healthy cell function.  It is also a great energy source.  They are also important in that they must be present to absorb the fat soluble vitamins which are vitamin A, D, E and K.


Carbohydrates are the most common source of energy in living things.  Just because they are common, does not mean they are necessary for survival.  There is no such thing as an “essential” carbohydrate.  You can obtain all the energy you need from fats and proteins.  There are, however, essential proteins and fats.

So What’s Wrong with the Current Food Label?

The current food label is confusing and should be set up a little differently.  To see a great example of what it should look like click here and scroll to page 6.  This is from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  There are some things that I agree with on this “new” label and some I do not.

I agree that there needs to be clarification with regards to the amount of calorie in each serving.  People often see 350 calories listed and can’t figure out how much food they can have for their 350 calories.  On the new label clearly stating that there are 350 calories in one serving makes that a little easier.  Secondly, the larger typing on the whole label makes it a lot easier to read.  Thirdly, there are a lot of foods that claim they have whole grain content.  At the top of this new label, companies would be required to tell you how much is whole grain.  In this case, it’s a lowly 2%.  I think that is a great idea because the food industry is getting away with marketing their products a whole grain when it fact they contain very little of it.  I also like the red numbering and lettering letting you know that you should pay attention to what’s been highlighted.  Although I believe they should highlight the total carbohydrate content rather than just the added sugar, it’s a good start.  It’s lets people know they need to pay attention to these things because they are important.  I also like how the major and minor ingredients have been broken down so you can see clearly what this food is actually made up of.  Separating the ingredients by bullets and taking out all the capital letters is also very helpful.  I have many patients with allergies and the allergy information at the bottom would be a life saver for these people.  It’s a great idea to have it listed on every package.

People need to take their own health into their hands and not rely on others to do it for them, but this is a great step in the right direction.  Making the food labels easier to understand would probably help a lot of people manage their diets more effectively.

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