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Buying Food: “Label Reading” by Karla

  • Dec 23 2012
  • Topic Tags

By Karla Hamal, RD

MedXCom Nutritional Consultant

Reading labels can allow us to be more aware of the food that we are eating.

New Year’s Resolution:  slow down and take a look at the food label step by step!

1)    Start with the Serving Size.  The rest of the nutritional information applies to the serving size.  Be sure to look at the calories per serving.  If you have a package of 6 cookies and the serving size is 2 all the nutritional information applies to the 2 cookies.


2)    Look at total fat then concentrate on the types of fat the serving contains.  Try and limit saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.  Unsaturated fats such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are better choices.  “Fat free” does not always mean calorie free as the manufacturer can add sugar to improve taste.


3)    Look at the sodium per serving – the recommended daily limit for an adult is 2,300 milligrams.  This can be difficult if you are looking at a can of soup with 3 servings each serving is 780 milligrams if you eat the entire can you have exceeded your daily limit of sodium.


4)    Check the carbohydrates – this category includes everything from grains to sugar.  Try to focus on whole grains, fruits these would increase your fiber content.


5)    Look at the fiber content with carbohydrates, and grains this number can identify healthy carbohydrate options.  The average adult should consume 21-35grams of fiber daily, but many of us do not reach that number.  Fiber can be plentiful in oatmeal, barley, beans, grains, fruits and vegetables.


The bottom of the label identifies Vitamin and mineral content.  These percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.


Ingredients are listed in order of quantity.  The first item on the label is the top ingredient as the label goes on each of these items decrease in volume.  Try and limit sugars items such as glucose, fructose, dextrose and galactose.  Look for natural and healthy ingredients foods that you are familiar with whole wheat, oats, or other natural products.


What does Natural mean or Organic?  Other items on the front of a package may be confusing. 

All Natural does not mean much.  The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) does not define this statement so food manufactures can use this statement as long as the food item does not contain added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.  Unfortunately that means it can contain preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and sugar.

Multigrain – Look for the words whole grain or 100% whole wheat; multigrain can be a confusing word and does not necessarily mean that it is made with the whole grain.  Look for fiber on the label to ensure you are getting the healthiest portion of the grain.

No sugar added – Foods including fruit, milk, cereals and vegetables can naturally contain sugar so no added sugar may still contain ingredients such as maltodextrin or simple sugars.  No added sugar does not mean that the product is sugar or carbohydrate free.

Sugar free – This like fat free does not mean the product has fewer calories.  These products can contain more calories than the regular version.  Sugar free products must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugars per serving, but they may still contain calories from other sources.  Many contain sugar alcohols – mannitol, xylitol, or sorbitol.  These products can induce stomach upset so be cautious.

Zero Trans fats – Products that say no trans fat can actually contain less than 0.5 grams per serving.  If the consumer is eating 3 servings he/she may be consuming 1.4 grams of trans fats – bad for the heart.  Look for hydrogenated oils and shortening on the label to identify trans fats.

Free Range products – These can be confusing because the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not define a requirement for the amount, duration and quality of outdoor access.  Instead of running out in a field the animal may just have exposure to the outdoors.

Fat Free – Many fat free items may have more calories than the low fat or full fat items.  Many of these items can be loaded with sugar.

Light – To be considered light a products’ fat content has to be 50% less than the amount found in a comparable product.  These labels can confuse the customer depending on how much fat the original product contained.

Real Fruit – this has caused many problems in the past because the real fruit contained in the product many not be the one on the label.  It may be flavored with another fruit and artificial flavors.  Strawberry flavored items may contain pear juice flavored to taste like strawberries.  What is the real fruit contained?

Lightly sweetened - this is a new term that has come up because the FDA has begun regulating terms like reduced sugar, no added sugar and sugar free. Lightly sweetened is the manufacturers term for how much sugar, beware.

Cholesterol free – doesn’t mean no cholesterol – scratching your head?  Cholesterol-free products must contain less than 2 mg per serving while low-cholesterol products contain 20mg or less per serving.  Foods that say reduced or less cholesterol must have at least 25% less than comparable products.

Organic – The USDA has now identified that a label that says organic must have 95% or more of ingredients that were grown or processed without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  Made with organic ingredients must contain 70% of all ingredients that meet the standard.  Organic products may still contain high levels of sugar, fat and calories and still be organic.


Label reading has become a bit of a confused issue as food manufacturers daily try to convince consumers that their products are healthier.  Sometimes the methods that evolve become confused and the consumer may not truly understand the products they are consuming.

Start reading labels and becoming familiar with items that you prefer to consume.  Eat more fiber, consume less sugar and look for items on the ingredients list that are healthy.

Start with healthy preparation, use products from your produce department, lean meats and fish and use unsaturated fats (olive and canola oil) prepare healthy food and use less processed foods to enjoy a well balanced diet.

Happy Holidays!

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