Diagram of a nutritional panel for better understandinf

How To Decipher A Nutritional Panel

The nutritional labels on foods can be hard to read, tricky and misleading.

Between the calories per serve (which is usually in place to trick consumers) and the amounts of carbohydrates from fibre, or fats from saturated fats vs trans fats, etc. it really does get quite complicated!

A lot of products will have statements like "sugar-free" yet taste sweeter than candy, how is that so?

It gets so confusing to understand exactly what you are eating, so I have broken it down a little to help you better understand. The fail safe way to understand a nutritional label is simply to read it. If you've picked up something at the supermarket with a label on it, read the label and take note of how high up ingredients like sugar or salt are up on the list. And if you pick up a similar product and notice it has less ingredients, less sugar, less sodium or a lower fat content, why not choose that option? Keep in mind that food companies will do their best to make a product seem healthy to upsell it. If something is low-fat, double check that the sugar content isn't high to make up for the lack of fat. Here are a few things that I personally look for when reading the nutrition panels of packaged foods:

Ingredients List

The higher up the list the more the product contains. Ie: if there were 70% cashews 10% honey and 20% dates the ingredients list would read: cashews, dates, honey in descending order.

Calories Per Serve

I always opt to look at the measurements per 100g, that way it is a generic figure no matter what the product is. A lot of companies try and trick consumers by saying that there is a lot of servings per item, meaning less calories. However it would mean only a mouthful per serve, not the serving size you would actually consume per serve.

Carbohydrate Content

You may notice that underneath the carbohydrate content, it may contain fibre and sugars within the total figure. Dietary fibre is the indigestible part of plants and does not spike your blood sugar levels.

Sugar Content

I avoid anything that contains artificial 'sugar' however if you are not a 100% clean eater, I would recommend you try and stick to less than 10-15grams of sugar per day. 1 teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams.  There are a few Australian recommendations that say no more than 6-8 teaspoons of added sugars each day, that is 16-32 grams per day of sweeteners. However, this doesn't take into account sugars that are naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables. Be wary of words in nutritional panels like sucrose, glucose, corn syrup, fructose, cane sugar and even fruit juice concentrate! These are all words for SUGAR.

Sugar Alcohols

Typically found in diet bars or low calorie solutions, they are a type of carbohydrate. Commonly used sugar alcohols are erythritol, glycerol, malitol, sorbitol, and xylitol, but there are many many more out there! These should be listed under carbohydrates, however a lot of companies try to avoid this as to claim it being the great 'low carb' alternative, typically sugar alcohols do not spike insulin like sugar does, therefore a lot of companies argue the fact they do not believe it should be listed under carbohydrates. The calorie content ranges from 0 to 3 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for sucrose or other sugars.


Words like "sweetened with stevia" fool us into a false sense of security, believing that only stevia is the sweetener used, however often it is used along side the sugar alcohols to achieve the desired sweet taste.

Fat Content

Saturated fat and trans fat will both come underneath the banner of fats. Saturated fats are the kind of fats that come from eggs, meat and dairy. While saturated fats pop up in these everyday common foods, too much saturated fats can lead to health issues. To keep your saturated fats to a minimum, consume a small amount of dairy and stick to lean cuts of meat. Trans fats are the fats you want to avoid that come from cakes, pastries, etc. Trans fats raise the risk of heat-related diseases. Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats tend to lower your blood cholesterol and have a better impact on your body. You can find these fats in things like olive oil and avocado.

Sodium Content

I aim for no more than 1500-2400mg per day of sodium, typical table salt will hold water, bloat you, increases the risk of high blood pressure, etc. Whereas Himalayan crystal salt and sea salt is comparatively great for your body, nerves and muscles.

Calories Per Macronutrient

The way that the total calories are calculated is under the basis of:
  • 1 gram of Protein contains 4 calories.
  • 1 gram of Carbohydrates contains 4 calories.
  • and 1 gram of Fat contains 9 calories.
The FDA also regulate packaging to help it easier to understand for consumers too, this way you know the exact details that need to be met by laws. (in US)

If a food claims to be...

It means that one serving of the product contains...
Calorie free Less than 5 calories
Sugar free Less than 0.5 grams of sugar
Fat free Less than 0.5 grams of fat
Low fat 3 grams of fat or less
Reduced fat or less fat At least 25 percent less fat than the regular product
Low in saturated fat 1 gram of saturated fat or less, with not more than 15 percent of the calories coming from saturated fat
Lean Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol
Extra lean Less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol
Light (lite) At least one-third fewer calories or no more than half the fat of the regular product, or no more than half the sodium of the regular product


Cholesterol free Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams (or less) of saturated fat
Low cholesterol 20 or fewer milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
Reduced cholesterol At least 25 percent less cholesterol than the regular product and 2 grams or less of saturated fat


Sodium free or no sodium Less than 5 milligrams of sodium and no sodium chloride in ingredients
Very low sodium 35 milligrams or less of sodium
Low sodium 140 milligrams or less of sodium
Reduced or less sodium At least 25 percent less sodium than the regular product
High fiber 5 grams or more of fiber
Good source of fiber 2.5 to 4.9 grams of fiber
After you begin reading labels and taking a more active part in your healthy and diet you will become more familiar with what you are looking for on the labels. You will also be able to gauge what is a high content and a low content fairly quickly. A great example is canned tomatoes, there are so many to choose from, however some cans contain as much as 13.6grams of sugar per serve versus a can with NO added sugars or salts. It really is all about choice, education and making the first step in the right direction for your family and your own health. Know your foods and learn what you are eating!  
*Information within this blog was sourced from the FDA and Heart Org website. 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published