How to Read a Food Label

To ensure that consumers know what is in the foods they buy, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that the packaging of every manufactured food product display certain information.

  • Ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight.
  • Labeling must also include a Nutrition Facts panel.

Although the intent is informational, such labels do not supply all the facts, especially when it comes to carbohydrates. But once you know the secret to figuring out how many carbs really count, the labels will become easy reading.

Backing into a Carb Count


Almost everything displayed on the Nutrition Facts panel is based on specific laboratory procedures, called assays, regulated by the FDA. The quantity of fat, protein, ash and water can all be directly and exactly assayed. (Water and ash need not be listed on nutrition panels.) Carbohydrates, however, are the exception. Instead, the amount of carbohydrate is arrived at only after the above four components are directly computed. In other words, what is not fat, protein, ash or water is called carbohydrate.

All Carbs Are Not Created Equal


To complicate matters still further, carbohydrates are comprised of several subgroups, which include dietary fiber, sugar, sugar alcohol and other carbohydrates—a kitchen-sink grouping of gums, lignans, organic acids and flavenoids. (These individual items can be assayed.) The FDA requires that a nutrition label include the total carbohydrates. The amount of dietary fiber and sugars must also be listed. However, the law does not require that other carbohydrate subcategories appear. Some manufacturers voluntarily include the subcategories of sugar alcohol and "other carbohydrates." Others do not.

Not all types of carbohydrates behave the same way in your body. For example, when your body digests table sugar, it turns it immediately into blood sugar. Other carbs, such as sugar alcohols, have a minimal impact on blood-sugar levels. Still other carbs, such as dietary fiber, pass through your body without having any impact on blood-sugar level. To date, the FDA has not focused on these important biochemical differences and treats all carbohydrates alike.

The Impact on Blood Sugar


When you look at most food labels, you won’t see a number representing the grams of carbs that impact your blood sugar. These high-glycemic carbs are the carbs that you need to count known as the Net Carb count. Fortunately, you don't have to be a food scientist or math whiz to figure it out. To calculate the carbs that count, simply subtract the number of grams of dietary fiber from the total number of carbohydrate grams.

Atkins science allows us to calculate Net Carbs in our products more accurately. In addition to subtracting grams of dietary fiber from total carbohydrates, we’re able to account for glycerin and other ingredients that have minimal impact on blood sugar levels that might not show up on a standard food label. We can also check Net Carbs using analytical techniques. But what is important for you to know is that all Atkins bars and shakes are low in Net Carbs.

What Is a Serving?


There is another rather sneaky aspect of nutrition labels. Let’s look at (but don’t drink!) a 20-ounce bottle of flavored iced tea sweetened with corn syrup. That's one serving, right? Wrong! Look carefully at the Nutrition Facts label and you will see that a single serving is calculated not as 20 ounces but as eight ounces. You are expected to share that bottle with a friend and a half! That means that all those calculations about carbohydrate content, sugar content and calories are for only eight ounces, not the whole bottle.

So, whenever you check a label to make sure you are not going over your daily carb count, double-check the serving size as well. And if you are planning to have more than what’s considered a single serving, multiply the adjusted carb count by the appropriate number of servings.

Here’s what you should be aware of on a nutrition label:

  • Serving size (if you have more than one serving, be sure to add in the carbs)
  • Total carbohydrates expressed in grams
  • Amount of dietary fiber expressed in grams (subtract from total number of carbs to get the net carb count)
  • Sugars expressed in grams