I look at nutrition labels on food packages and I just don’t get it.  They must be wonderful things, but I just don’t get it. The government requires them on all food packages. Health magazines and nutrition classes give instructions on how to read them and what their numbers mean, but when I read one, I just don’t get a lot of useful information.

So I came up with a way to translate the labels into a more meaningful format. I offer it here in hopes you will find it useful as well.


                Take the total calories per serving, that’s usually the largest print on the nutrition label, and divide it by the total grams in a serving. I use the calculator on my cell phone. The resulting number is a ratio representing the total calories per gram in a food.

In other words, it tells you, on a 10 point scale, how heavily laden with calories a particular food is. The lower the number, the more of that food you can eat without packing on pounds. The higher the number, the less you can eat. Yes I know. That’s the same thing that the total calorie per serving does, but if you do the math you get several advantages.


  1. It makes it easy to compare foods.  When you do the math, you reduce a food’s calorie count to its lowest common denominator. That makes the serving size irrelevant. The calories per gram in a tablespoon of a food are the same as the calories per gram in a cup of that same food.  You can now compare: foods with different serving sizes; odd serving sizes such as slices of bread and number of chips. You can compare bread to sandwich wraps, flour tortillas, to hamburger buns and find which makes the best sandwich.
  2. It answers questions that are important to you. When I look at food I think, “How much of that will it take to fill me up?” Then I think, “How much can I eat without getting fat?” I never think, “Gee, I wonder what the recommended serving size is?” So doing the math helps me answer the questions that are important to me and not the questions that are important to label makers.
  3. It generates a more meaningful number. The number you generate will be between 0.00 and 10.00 with most foods coming in at about 4.00. That makes it easy to do side-by-side comparisons of different foods. Psychologically speaking, a small number like 3.4 or 4.2 is easier to comprehend that a large number like 450 total calories.

BUT WAIT (as they say on TV) THERE’S MORE

If you do the math you get a general idea of what is in the food you are about to eat. If you come up with the number larger than four that means it has fat in it. That’s because carbohydrates and proteins usually burn at about 4 calories per gram. Fat burns at about 10 calories per gram. Therefore, the more the number exceeds four the more fat the food contains.

Only the other end of the scale, if you come up with a number less than four that indicates the presences of one of three things.

  1. FIBER:  This adds to the weight of the food, does not add calories, fills you up, and retards the digestion of food.
  2. FILLER:  This adds to the weight of the food, does not add calories, fills you up, but does not retard digestion.
  3. FOREIGN SUBSTANCE: Something you don’t normally eat but adds to the weight of the food such as the bone in a T-bone steak.

After you do this a few times you get a feel for what the calories per gram should be. If you do the math and come up with that number that doesn’t look right, you find yourself asking why. That’s a good thing.

I bought a package of turkey lunchmeat. I did the math expected to get a number around four. After all, turkey is protein and protein is about 4 calories per gram. I came out with a number less than 1 calorie per gram. Whatever I was eating, wasn’t turkey. I checked the label and found the lunchmeat contained less than 2% turkey.

So what was I eating? I know they sometimes put water in turkey to make it way more but not that much water. The label told me there was a little bit of sugar, a little salt and only 4 g of protein. I checked the list of ingredients, all written in very small print, and found my lunchmeat contained a lot of preservatives, jells, food coloring, and things like that. It was mostly things you don’t find in the Betty Crocker cookbook. (Yes, I ate it anyway. I had already paid for it.)


                Divide the total calories in serving of food by the total grams in a serving. That gives you a number on a 10 point scale that represents the calories per gram. You can compare that number to other foods regardless of serving size. It also gives you an idea of how much fat or fiber is in the food and alerts you to anomalies. The whole purpose for this is to better understand what is in the food we are eating. Once we can do that with packaged food we should be able to apply it to food we prepared home and to food on the buffet line.

Anyway, it makes sense to me and I hope it’s something you can use.




                Use the same technique to determine the salt content. Take the milligrams of salt per serving and divided by the total grams in a serving. That should provide you with a consistent number that you could use to compare salt content. Through a little trial and error you should be able to tell when the salt content is too high for you. Remember that sodium is measured in milligrams so it will have no relation to your calories per gram number. Don’t use a decimal when writing the milligrams number down, and if the sodium content is ever a full gram write it down as 1000. That should offer you enough consistency.

Thank you for reading my idea. I hope it helps.