Understanding Food Labels

Couple reading nutrition label.

To honor National Nutrition Month, March's MUSC Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery support group featured a presentation on "Understanding Food Labels" by one of our bariatric surgery dietitians, Cher. The presentation explored a food label and what to look for in terms of macro- and micronutrients, ingredients and various nutrition related claims.

Serving size

This tells you the number of servings per container and all information on the rest of the label is based off this. Your post-bariatric surgery serving size may differ from what is listed so you may need to adjust the rest of the numbers accordingly.


Calories are how we measure the amount of energy food provides to your body. A typical American diet is 2,000 calories per day, however post bariatric surgery, your caloric intake will be less than the general population, who the label was designed for.

Macronutrients: Fats, Carbohydrates and Protein


  • Saturated Fat:
    • Should make up 5-6% of daily calories
    • Increase risk of heart disease
    • Typically come from animal products and tropical oils (coconut & palm oil)
  • Trans Fat:
    • Should make up less than 1% of daily calories
    • Increase risk of heart disease
    • Added to products to increase shelf life
      • Processed foods/baked goods (cakes, cookies, margarine, fried food)


  • Provide energy for the body
  • Should make up 45-65% of daily calories
  • Fiber
    • Should aim for 25-30 grams per day
    • Helps keep digestive system healthy
    • Helps reduce cholesterol levels
    • Has no calories and helps keep us full for longer
  • Added sugars
    • Avoid to maximize weight loss- aim for 25-50 grams per day
    • Avoid after surgery to avoid dumping syndrome
    • Sugar hides under many names including agave, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, molasses, sucrose


  • Building blocks of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, enzymes, hormones, and vitamins
  • Should make up 15-35% of daily calories
  • Helps keep you feeling full for longer
  • Aim for 60-80 grams per day after bariatric surgery
    • 20 to 30 grams per meal
    • 10 to 15 grams per snack

Micronutrients: Sodium, vitamins/minerals


  • Sodium is a component of salt that is found in most foods but especially high in processed, packaged and canned foods
  • Excess sodium can increase blood pressure- aim for no more than 2,000 mg daily
  • "Low sodium" is considered <140 mg per serving

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron and Potassium are required on all nutrition labels, however the food may contain other vitamins and minerals in addition to the ones listed. These are typically measured in units such as milligrams (mg), micrograms (mcg) or international units (IU).

Percent Daily Value

The percent daily values are set by the FDA and are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. In general, if the percentage is greater than 20%, that indicates a high quantity, whereas a percentage less than 5% indicates a low quantity.


Ingredients are listed at the bottom of the nutrition label in descending order by weight. This means that the further down the list you go, the less of each ingredient there is in the product.

Nutrition Claims

There are various nutrition claims that are used to sell or market products, however it’s important to understand what these claims actually mean. See below for some common claims and what they say about a product.

Nutrition Claim  Meaning
Light 1/2 fewer calories or 50% less fat
Less, fewer or reduced 25% less of a nutrient or calories
Calorie free Less than five calories
Low calorie 40 calories or less
Fat Free Less than 0.5 grams of fat
Low fat 3 grams or less of total fat
High fiber 5 grams or more
Good source of fiber 2.5 grams to 4.9 grams