Deciphering Food Labels Ain’t Easy!

By Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, LDN
Director of Nutritional Counseling
The Domar Center for Mind/Body Health at Boston IVF


“When it comes to food labels, what do I look at?”

This question was posed to me by a patient with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) a few days ago. She realizes she needs to watch her carbs, and she’s also trying to lose weight. Like many patients I’ve seen, she finds food labels very confusing and would love to be able to just focus on one thing on the label and know she’s making a good choice.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to give her the easy answer she was looking for. You see, when looking at a food label you must analyze at least three pieces of information; portion size, calories and carbs.

Portion size is the most important thing on a food label because everything else you read relates to that much of the food. If you eat two portions, you double everything else you read on the label. Beyond that, I told her she needed to be aware of how many calories she would consume while staying within her “carb budget” of around 45 grams per meal or 15 grams per snack.

One clearly not-great snack option of hers was a coconut ice cream bar that had only 14 grams of carbs but 11 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat (packaged in 170 calories). For a total of about 105 calories and a little appetite-suppressing protein (and no saturated fat) she’d be better suited eating a half-ounce of whole grain crackers and a wedge of Laughing Cow Light Cheese.

For breakfast, with a target of 30 grams of carbs from cereal, we did a comparison. She could have a serving and a half of Barbara’s Puffins whole grain cereal (135 calories) or the less than three-quarter cup of granola (240 calories).

The solution for her was to have a serving of the Puffins cereal with a tablespoon or two of the granola she loved sprinkled on top. That way she could experience the texture and taste of granola without the excess calories.

As you can see, there generally aren’t any easy answers when it comes to reading food labels, particularly because everyone’s needs are different.

It does, however, help if you’re fairly good at math. 🙂



 Hillary is a registered and licensed dietician with a Master’s degree in Health Education from Boston Univeristy, and has over 18 years experience counseling clients on diet and lifestyle change.

After 12 years as a nutrition-based educator for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates (HVMA), Hillary transitioned to a part-time position at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She is also the founder of New Vision Nutrition in Arlington, Massachusetts — a private nutrition consulting practice that includes nutrition counseling, public speaking, and teaching nutrition to colleges and institutions. 

She is a contributing editor and regular writer for the newsletter “Environmental Nutrition” and is currently working with the Arlington Public Schools on grant-funded programs designed to increase nutrition, education and physical activity in  the community. Hillary’s clinical interests include women’s health and nutritional management of polycycstic overy syndrome (PCOS). Her book, “The PCOS Diet Plan”  — the first nutrition-based PCOS written by a registered dietician — will be released in 2010.