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Know the Facts: A Guide To Reading Nutrition Labels

Posted on May 3, 2016 at 8:34 AM by Lia Bahls, RD

When you pick up a food item, such as peanut butter, and it has a label touting that it is “all natural,” do you know what that means? What about “low in sugar” or “organic” or “high in fiber?” I’m sure you have seen all of these and more when looking at products in the grocery store. Listed below is a guide to help you determine what these labels are actually telling you about the food they are attached to.



This has to mean the food is healthy and free of harmful additives correct? Nope. The label “natural” is not regulated by government for any food. The only guidance that exists for this term in regards to food is that the product is free of anything artificial or synthetic. So when you are purchasing foods based on the fact that they say “natural” turn them over and check out the ingredient list. Ask yourself if the ingredients in the product sound natural to you?   



This is another label with no clear definition. Some stores require a 200-mile radius to be considerer “local” while others may be 400 miles or 100 miles. If you want produce from your hometown or a town nearby it is better to go with a farm that has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. This will provide unique and fresh produce for the season that is sourced from the farm you purchase your CSA with.



This is a term that is regulated by the government. To be labeled USDA Organic there is a strict process for the producers to go through. There can be no synthetic pesticides, GMOs, or chemical fertilizers used for at least three years to even qualify for USDA Organic status. Meat, egg and dairy products cannot have any hormones or antibiotics added. However, there are other organic labels that are not USDA Organic. That does not mean that these products are not held to the same standards. It could mean that the producers don’t agree with USDA standards, such as allowing the use of biological pesticides, on organic products or they may not have reached their three-year mark yet. It is also very expensive to apply to be certified as USDA Organic. 



Must have 3g or less of fat per serving.


Low-saturated fat

Must have 1g or less of saturated fat per serving. No more than 15% of calories can come from saturated fat.



Must have 140mg or less of sodium per serving.


Very low sodium

Must have 35mg or less per serving.


Low cholesterol

Must have 20mg or less of cholesterol and 2g or less of saturated fat per serving.



Must be 40 calories or less per serving.


High/Rich in/Excellent source  (such as excellent source of calcium or high-fiber)

This means that the product contains 20% or more of the Daily Value of that particular nutrient per serving.


Good source/More/Enriched/Fortified/Extra/Added (such as enriched with vitamin C)

This means that the product contains 10-19% of the Daily Value of that particular nutrient per serving.


Less (such as less fat)

This means that the product contains 25% less of that particular nutrient or calories than another food.  An example of this would be that plantain chips have 25% less fat than regular potato chips.


Start making a habit of reading the nutrition labels on products. Make sure to understand what the serving size is of the product you are consuming. Just because something states that it has less calories or less fat does not mean that you can eat twice as much. Also note that some products that claim less fat may substitute with other ingredients that are just as unhealthy, such as sugar. Just because a product states that it is “organic” or “natural” does not mean it is healthy. Choose whole foods, fresh or frozen, and avoid processed foods as much as possible and your health will be better off. 


American Heart Association. Reading Food Nutrition Labels. Accessed at on March 17, 2014.

HealthCheck Systems. What’s In A Food Label? Accessed at on March 17, 2014.

US Food and Drug Administration: Food Labeling Guide. Accessed at on March 19, 2014.

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