Chef Tim Says...

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Dr. Tim Says....

Reading Nutrition Labels

There was a time when the Nutrition Facts box on food labels didn't exist. The first book I wrote was mostly about how to read a food label, because before 1990 all that was required was simply a listing of ingredients. The only way to know if what you were buying might be healthy or not was that the ingredients were listed in order of amount by weight.

This is still the case and when you see that sugar is the first ingredient listed you know that there's more sugar by weight than any of the other ingredients. But we now, of course, have a lot more information. It can still be a bit of a challenge, however, if you don't know a lot about nutrition. Here's a guide on how to read the Nutrition Facts box.

The first step is to break the Nutrition Facts box down into sections.

The first section (in gray here for our purposes but the label won't be color coded) contains the serving size and the number of servings in the package. This is the place where food manufacturers try to trick you because a lot of smaller packages are realistically only a single serving, but they will list it as 2 or 3 servings. (The cynic in me believes that this is done to make you believe that the food is healthier than you might otherwise believe.)

A good example of this is a 16 ounce bottle of juice. A healthy enough choice and most folks will drink the whole bottle. It seems reasonable, but it's actually a lot of calories. A quick glance at the Nutrition Facts shows that there are only 120 calories in a serving - but if you don't look closely you might not notice that there are two servings in the bottle, adding up to 240 calories in the whole bottle.


The first step is to look at the serving size and how many servings are in that package.

The next (white) section shows the number of calories per serving. Simple enough but always be suspect and look back at the number of servings per container. This section also tells you how many of those calories are from fat. In this case it's pretty high - almost half. This works as a good guide about whether what you are getting ready to eat contains too much fat.

This third section (in yellow here) is the one that is the most important. It shows you how much fat, cholesterol and sodium are in the package. There is also a breakdown of the fats by type - Saturated and Trans Fats. Note that this food contains Trans Fat. Put those back on the shelf. You want a food or ingredient with zero (0) Trans Fats.

The white part of this section has similar information on carbs and protein. One key in this section is to focus on the amount of sugars. While a lot of foods are high in natural sugars - fruit, juices and the like - it's a good idea to limit the amount of sugar in most cases.

The section highlighted in purple is best for you to use as a guide. It's where you can find the quick and easy information. This section is the “Percent Daily Value” -the percentage of fat, cholesterol, sodium, etc. that you should have in a day. In this example the food has 18% of the total fat you should have for the day (these percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet).

The bottom section gives you a guide as to those recommended amounts. Unfortunately, not a lot of folks should be eating 2,000 or more calories per day so you have to make adjustments based on your needs.

My favorite quick way to consider a food is what I call the 20 / 5 rule. When you look at a package if the fat, sodium or cholesterol are under 5%, that's good, If any are over 20% you should consider carefully.

For total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, a DV of 5 or lower is bad; a DV of 20 or higher is good.

Here's a table to help:

  Less than 5% More than 20%
Fat Good Bad
Sodium Good Bad
Cholesterol Good Bad
Carbohydrates Bad Good
Fiber Bad Good
Vitamins A & C Bad Good
Calcium, Iron Bad Good

So, take a minute and grab a few cans and boxes from the pantry. Look at them using this guide as a test for yourself and you'll be ready anytime you go to the grocery.

Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
Dr. Gourmet
February 23, 2009

Last updated: 02/23/09