All posts by: Kevin Mendoza

About Kevin Mendoza

Decoding Food Labels

Want to know what’s in the food you’re buying? Reading food labels is the easiest way to know the content of the food you’re eating. The two most important parts of food labels are the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list. Both are intended to give you the knowledge to make the right food choices for you and your family. Here is what you need to know about each:

Nutrition Facts Label: This section tells you how many servings are in the container/package, what constitutes one serving, and the amount of calories and key nutrients there are per serving. The number of servings is important to know because if you eat more than one serving at a time you will be consuming more calories and nutrients than is listed on the label. There are several nutrients that are required by law to be disclosed based on potential health impacts; these are total fat (including saturated fat and trans-fat), cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates (including dietary fiber and total/added sugars), and protein. There are also several required vitamins and minerals including potassium, vitamin D, calcium, and iron.

The Nutrition Facts label also discloses Percent Daily Values (%DV) for each nutrient, which gives you the percent of the total recommended DV for that nutrient based on a 2,000-calorie diet. This can also give you a quick snapshot of whether a food is high or low in a specific nutrient. Generally, a 5% DV means the nutrient content is considered “low” while a 20% or higher DV means the level is considered “high” in a particular product.

Ingredient Label: The ingredient label contains the ingredients included in a food product and is ‎listed in descending order from highest to lowest amount based on weight. Thus, the higher an ‎ingredient appears on the list the more it is contained in the product. The ingredient list ‎consists of both the major components of the food as well as any food additives that were used ‎to impart a technical function. Food additives are substances that are added to food to maintain ‎or improve the safety, freshness, taste, texture, or appearance of the food. They include vitamin ‎and mineral-derived additives that are added to improve the nutritional content of bread, dairy, ‎and cereal products; stabilizers and emulsifiers that prevent separation and keep the product ‎uniform and of high quality; antioxidants and preservatives that support food safety and longer ‎shelf life; and finally, natural and artificial colors/flavors to improve taste and flavor. While some ‎food ingredients may be easy to spot like salt and sugar, others may be less familiar. But all ‎ingredients permitted for use in food have been rigorously tested and reviewed by regulatory ‎agencies and are just as safe and vital to our food supply. So don’t be concerned if you don’t ‎recognize a particular ingredient’s name. ‎

Additional resources can be found here:

Get the Fast Facts on Ultra-Processed Foods 

Recent attention around processed food, particularly “ultra-processed” foods, has made headlines across the country. You may find yourself asking “What exactly are ultra-processed foods, and are they unhealthy?”

Foods are processed for several reasons including to prevent spoilage, ensure food safety, maintain or enhance taste and flavor, improve nutritional value, and lengthen shelf life. The degree of processing varies depending on the type of food and can range from minimally processed to highly processed. Ultra-processed foods fall into the highly processed category. Although researchers, regulators and food experts are still debating the exact definition, ultra-processed foods generally are those made using industrial, scientific processing methods and typically have five or more ingredients. However, this in no way means foods considered “ultra processed” are inherently bad or unhealthy. In fact, a recent study led by scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center showed that it’s possible to build a healthy diet with more than 90 percent of the calories coming from ultra-processed foods while still following the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Don’t let misleading headlines deceive you into thinking you need to cut out your favorite or even staple foods from your diet. You might find it surprising that these common food items could be considered ultra-processed by ranking systems like the NOVA scale.

  • Breakfast Cereals: Many breakfast cereals are fortified with important vitamins and minerals and are a good way to increase dairy intake.
  • Flavored Greek Yogurt: Yogurt is a good source of calcium and some brands even add probiotics, which help improve gut health.
  • Peanut Butter: Not only is peanut butter a favorite among children and adults but it contains a slew of health-promoting nutrients, including vitamin E, magnesium, iron, selenium, vitamin B6, and protein.
  • Plant-based Milks: Well-liked by consumers, plant-based milks like almond, oat, and soy are good choices for people who are lactose intolerant or have other dietary preferences.
  • Frozen Pizza: Not all pizza is created equally. Even more so, the increased consumer demand for low-carb, plant-based and gluten-free variations to their favorite foods has drove innovation like cauliflower crust pizzas that are higher in fiber and lower in calories than more traditional alternatives.
  • Canned Baked Beans: A favorite at family gatherings, baked beans are loaded with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Protein Bars: Protein bars are often packed with vitamins and minerals. Read and compare Nutrition Facts Labels to find the best match for you. Don’t just focus on the protein; start by aiming for 3 – 10 grams of dietary fiber and added sugars to less than 8 grams per bar.  


Hess, Julie M et al. “Dietary Guidelines Meet NOVA: Developing a Menu for A Healthy Dietary Pattern Using Ultra-Processed Foods.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 153,8 (2023): 2472-2481. doi:10.1016/j.tjnut.2023.06.028

Hess, Julie M et al. “Dietary Guidelines Meet NOVA: Developing a Menu for A Healthy Dietary Pattern Using Ultra-Processed Foods.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 153,8 (2023): 2472-2481. doi:10.1016/j.tjnut.2023.06.028. Online supplementary materials and figures

IFT Food Processing Toolkit: Get the Facts: Food Processing. Accessed August 17, 2023

Latulippe, Marie. “Food Safety: Science Needed to Inform Dietary Guidelines on ‘Ultra-Processed’ Foods.” Food Processing, 7 Aug. 2023.

“Food Additives.” World Health Organization, 31 Jan. 2018, Accessed 28 Aug. 2023.

Trust the Process-es: Understanding the Truth About Processed Foods

Processed foods, by definition, are those that have been changed from their natural state. There are many ways that foods are processed. Some of the ways we process foods in our ‎own home include chopping, grinding, cooking, drying, fermenting, salting, freezing and ‎mixing ingredients of a receipt together. Then there are food manufacturers who use modern ‎technologies like ultra-high temperature processing (used for shelf-stable milk) and modified ‎atmosphere packaging (used for many foods from meat to dips) that involve numerous ‎complex ‎steps and require scientific understanding to function successfully.

For thousands of years humans have been processing food – and for good reasons too. Why? First for food safety. For example, the process of pasteurization, which ensures a beverage or food is safe and of good quality. Another reason is preservation. Historically the use of salt helped preserve meat and prevent spoilage. More recent developments include the use of aseptic packaging to ensure the safety of beverages and the use of food additives to support product quality. Citric acid and lecithin are used to prevent oxidation and rancidity in butter, cheese, bread, and almond milk, while emulsifiers, thickeners and stabilizers such as carrageenan, gellan gum, and xanthan gum help extend shelf life and improve product quality. Then there’s palatability and taste which is what makes food acceptable to consumers and includes everything from spices and seasonings to natural and artificial flavorings.

Nutritionally processed foods can deliver much needed vitamins and minerals like enriched bread, high-protein snack bars, or calcium-fortified orange juice. Finally, there is consumer convenience. Processed foods are noted for their convenience and require minimal preparation and cooking or could even be ready-to-eat. In today’s fast-paced society, convenience is key and a driving force behind many consumer’s food purchases – like microwave packaged rice, canned beans, and frozen pizza. Many of these foods are healthy and nutritious items that add variety as well as versatility to our diets and are oftentimes much less expensive than fresh food. Over the years consumers’ lifestyles have changed, including a reduction in the amount of time available to dedicate to meal preparation. In 2022, the labor force participation rate – the percent of the population working or looking for work – increased for mothers and fathers, regardless of marital status; ranging from 71.1% to 93.7%.[1] The availability, accessibility, affordability, and ease of processed foods are crucial to today’s way of living – it takes less than 10 seconds to open a can of beans compared to at least 4 hours or up to 12 hours to soak dried beans.

More resources can be found here:

Food Dates Guide: Know What to Keep or Toss

Let’s face it, no one likes to throw away food but we all do it. In fact, Americans waste about 40% of the ‎U.S. food supply which, according to the US Department of Agriculture, amounts to a loss of about ‎‎$1,500 of uneaten food per year for an average family of four. Unfortunately, not all of the food that’s ‎thrown out is bad, and in some cases product labels can give the wrong impression about the safety or ‎quality of a product. But aside from the inevitable moldy bread or wilted lettuce, how do you know ‎what to save and what to get rid of? Navigating the various dates terminology isn’t always simple. In ‎fact, Congress reintroduced a bill called the Food Date Labeling Act of 2023 in May. Legislators are ‎seeking a uniform solution to dating products with the hopes to reduce consumer confusion and ‎reduce food waste. Until that happens, here is quick guide to help you know what to keep and what to ‎toss: ‎

Use-By Date: The “use-by” date indicates the last day on which the product is expected to be at ‎its peak quality. This is typically used for perishable items like dairy products, meats, and ready-‎to-eat meals and, depending on the product, there could be safety implications if the food is ‎consumed well past the use-by date. When it comes to perishable items, precaution should ‎always be taken. It is best to do a visual inspection and if there is any doubt throw them out. ‎

Sell-By Date: Aimed at retailers, this date indicates the date by which the store should sell the ‎product to ensure that the consumer has a reasonable amount of time to use it before its ‎quality begins to decline. However, this doesn’t mean a product should not be consumed after ‎its “sell-by” date and it has virtually no impact on the safety of the product. ‎

Best-By/Before Date: Probably the most common, this date is similar to the “use-by” date and ‎indicates the date by which the product is expected to be at its best quality. It is often found on ‎items like packaged foods, canned goods, and snacks. Consuming products after the “best by” ‎date doesn’t necessarily pose health risks, but the flavor, texture, and nutritional content may ‎have started to decline. Many foods are still safe to eat well beyond the “best by” date if they’ve ‎been stored properly and show no signs of spoilage.‎

Freeze-By: This date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak ‎quality, similar to above. It is not a purchase or safety date.‎

In addition to learning these important food date guides, it is also essential to understand the role food additives play in reducing food waste. Food additives and ingredients such as antioxidants and stabilizers help prevent spoilage and increase the shelf-life of some of your favorite foods and snacks. Understanding what these dates mean is one of the easiest ways to know whether to throw out a food product or not.