Reading Food Labels

by Catherine Haug

A teacher I know insists that her students get in the habit of reading food labels. After just a few labels, they all swear they’ll stop eating. “Don’t stop eating altogether, just stop eating THAT,” she tells them.

Do you read labels? Do you know how to interpret them?

List of Ingredients

This is a list of things used to make the product. Items listed are added to the food, not part of another ingredient. For example, if it says sodium chloride, that means that salt was added to the soup, not that sodium chloride is intrinsic to the tomatoes in the soup.

Bottom line: if the list includes things you cannot find in a grocery store or farmers market; if it’s not something you can make in your own kitchen from that list, you don’t really want to eat it.

Here’s a simple example: sour cream ingredients for two different brands (1, 2).

  • Daisy Brand Sour Cream: Grade A cultured cream. Contains: Milk.
  • Meadow Gold Sour Cream: Cultured milk and cream, whey, food starch-modified (corn), maltodextrin, sodium tripolyphosphate, sodium citrate, guar gum, carrageenan, calcium sulfate, potassium sorbate, locust bean gum.

In this example, which sounds better to you? Which sounds more natural? Which lists what you would need to make sour cream in your kitchen? Of course, the answer to all 3 questions is “Daisy Brand Sour Cream.”

Let’s look a bit deeper at the second list.

  • What is “food starch-modified (corn)” and where does it come from? Answer: it’s extracted from corn, then modified (they don’t tell you how). Furthermore, the corn is most likely GMO because corn products are made from feed corn (because it’s cheaper to grow than sweet corn), and unless specified as “Organic,” feed corn is GMO.
  • What is “maltodextrin” and where does it come from? it is a chemically altered polysaccharide (carb) derived most typically from corn starch, and, like modified food starch, most likely from GMO corn.
  • What are “guar gum, locust bean gum, and carrageenan“? These are all types of carbohydrates used as thickeners, or to enhance texture. The first two come from specific beans; carrageenan is extracted from red seaweeds.
  • What are “sodium tripolyphosphate, sodium citrate, potassium sorbate, and calcium sulfate? These are all salts, used as preservatives (as in the first 3), or to increase mineral content (as in calcium sulfate)

Ask yourself: are these things I would choose to eat? Do any have adverse affects upon health?

Another important consideration is what is NOT listed as an ingredient. There are many ingredients that are not required by law to be listed, or that can be grouped under a tame-sounding category such as “natural flavors.” These hidden ingredients may indeed be ones you want to avoid. But how would you know? You don’t, unless you’re privy to trade secrets.

Nutrition Facts

This part of the label is mandated by federal law, for any food that contains more than one ingredient. It is a measure of the total amount of each nutrient in a single serving of the food, including that intrinsic to a particular ingredient and not just added ingredients. For example, milk naturally contains lactose which is a sugar; the lactose content would be included in the total sugars listed on the label.

The most important item is the serving size: is this a reasonable size? Is this the amount you would normally consume at a time? Or has it been manipulated to avoid listing certain ingredients?

For example, tub margarine. If they can make the serving size small enough that the amount of trans fats in that serving is less than 0.5 grams, they don’t have to list trans fats and can claim their product to be “zero trans fats.”

All the items listed reflect amounts in that serving size, and are the only nutrients required by law to be included (the food may contain other nutrients, but are not listed because not required by law).

Another item of note is “% DV” (percent of daily value, or amount recommended in a 2000 calorie daily diet by the FDA).

Let’s look at the Nutrition Facts/Info on our sour cream examples (1, 2).

For these examples, their nutritional content is very similar, differing mainly in sodium and calcium levels, because of the added sodium and calcium salts in the Meadow Gold product.

Is the serving size reasonable? Would you use more, or less sour cream on a baked potato? in a bowl of soup?

Seals, Certifications & Claims

“Organic”, “Fair Trade”, “rBst-Free”, “GMO-free”, “Natural”, and “Heart Healthy” are all examples of enticements on the label to make a sale. Some provide more meaningful information than others.

For example, Organic vs Natural: Which sounds more healthful? Most people would say “Natural” sounds better for you, but in fact, there is no regulation on the term ‘natural’, whereas ‘organic’ is strictly controlled. See my post Natural vs. Organic for more.

Another example, what does it take to be “heart healthy“? These foods are low in saturated fat, low in cholesterol, and low in sodium, and they have no trans fats. They also contain only three grams or less of fat per serving and have at least 0.6 gram of soluble fiber. (3) Are these criteria meaningful or grounded in science? If a food meets these criteria but also contain GMO ingredients, would it still be considered healthful?

For More Information

For more on reading labels, see:


  1. Daisy Sour Cream Label (
  2. Meadow Gold Sour Cream Label ( Link removed because it contains malware  (
  3. Heart healthy food label (

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