Understanding Ingredient Labels
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Nashville's 'Clean-Eating' Crusader

After his cancer diagnosis, nutritionist Randy Pendergrass grew a passion for healthful, organic and locally grown foods—and he wants to tell you about them.

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By Stephen Ornes

Understanding Ingredient Labels

Want to know more about your food? Read the labels.

By Stephen Ornes


Most packaged food sold in the U.S. contains a nutrition label. Look at the top of the label first for the serving size, servings per container and caloric content. The rest of the nutritional information is based on a single serving.

Nutrients that you should limit or avoid—including fats, cholesterol and sodium—are listed at the top of the label’s chart, along with the amount of each item found in one serving. These values correspond to a percentage of the daily amount recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a person consuming a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. The next sections of the chart list nutrients like carbohydrates, protein and vitamins, which are vital to good health.

Finally, the food ingredients are listed on the label in descending order by weight. Ingredients that end in “-ose,” like glucose or fructose, are sugars; their intake should be limited. Sugar can be hidden in other ingredients: “Corn syrup” and “corn syrup solids,” for example, are other names for fructose.

And keep an eye out for foods labeled as “whole grain”—they may not be as healthy as they seem. The grain itself, such as oats or whole wheat, should be one of the first ingredients. The Harvard School of Public Health advises consumers to buy breads and cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Consumption of refined grains, like those found in white bread or white rice, has been linked to diabetes and heart disease.

Have a question about a particular ingredient? Look it up in the FDA database of Everything Added to Food in the United States, which defines more than 3,900 ingredients.