Understanding Nutritional Labels

The "Nutrition Facts" box on a food label contains nutritional information listed in order of importance.

Each label is required to include:

  • information on how the food fits into an overall daily diet
  • information on the amount per serving of saturated fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, and other nutrients of health concern to today's consumers
  • terms such as light," "fat-free," and "low-calorie" meet government definitions
  • amounts expressed in common measures and reflect amounts people actually eat

Nutritional label

1. Serving Sizes

Serving size is the first item listed on a nutrition label and it is the most important. It is key to using the rest of the information on the label.

  • Serving sizes are standardized, recommended snack or meal size portions.
  • Depending on the type of food, the serving size may be indicated by cup measure or number, such as one cup of cereal or one slice of bread. Some foods, like salad dressing, can be represented by small measures like tablespoons. This information is followed by the metric amount (e.g., grams) the serving contains.
  • Serving sizes are based on the amount of food people typically eat, which makes them realistic and easy to compare to similar foods. However, this may or may not be the serving amount you normally eat.

Servings per container: The size of the serving influences all of the nutrient amounts listed and the related servings let you know how much is in the entire package. For example, if a package has 4 servings and you eat the entire package, you quadruple the calories, fat, etc. that you have eaten.


2. Percent Daily Value

Sometimes referred to as DV, the Percent Daily Value displays the amount of nutrients found in each serving of the food such as calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium and vitamins.

  • These daily values are the reference numbers that are set by the government (Food and Drug Administration) and are based on current nutrition recommendations. Some labels list daily values for both 2,000 and 2,500 calorie/day diets.
  • For diets other than 2,000 calories, divide by 2,000 to determine the % Daily Value for nutrients. For example, if you are following a 1500-calorie diet, your % Daily Value goal will be based on 75% for each nutrient, not 100%.
  • Daily Value can be confusing for some nutrients that actually fluctuate with other factors. For example, iron needs depend on age, gender, and whether you're pregnant. Most labels are based on an adult woman under 50.


3. Calories and Calories from Fat

The calories in a serving are displayed directly under the portion sizes. The number of servings you eat determines the number of calories you actually take in.

  • The FDA considers a food with 40 calories or less per serving to be low calorie; 100 calories per serving, moderate; and 400 calories or more per servings is a high calorie food.
  • It is recommended that your diet provide no more than 30% of total calories from fat. For example, with a 2,000-calorie diet, no more than 600 calories of your day's food intake should be comprised of fat.


4. Total Fat

A food's fat and saturated fat content is displayed next. Starting in 2003, the FDA added trans fat to the label and it became required in 2006. Some manufacturers also include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats on labels.

  • Fat is listed in grams. Too much fat leads to overweight and obesity, however our bodies need some fat in order to function.
  • Saturated and trans fat are known as "bad fats" because they raise cholesterol and can lead to health risks such as heart disease.
  • Unsaturated fat is a "good fat" that is healthy because it will not raise your cholesterol level. An example of a good fat is olive oil.

Cholesterol - Cholesterol is listed under fats. It is a fatty substance found in animal products such as meat and dairy products. Cholesterol is a major factor in the risk of heart disease and heart attack. The American Heart Association recommends that you limit your average daily cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams.


5. Sodium

Sodium information is located after cholesterol rather than with the other minerals down lower on label. If you consider that current FDA guidelines indicate that a DV of 5% or less is low and a DV of 20% or more is high, you can determine where the sodium amount of food you are looking at falls. A good way to find foods that are low in sodium is to read labels and choose those foods that have less than 140 mg of sodium per serving or that are labeled as being 'low in sodium' or 'very low in sodium.'


6. Total Carbohydrate (includes Fiber and Sugars)

Carbohydrates (often referred to as carbs) are listed next. The Total Carbohydrate amount is made up of dietary fiber and sugars and the amounts for each of these are listed.

  • The "Sugars" amount indicated are simple sugar carbohydrates. There may also be added sugars in the food, which would be indicated in the ingredients list. If things like corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, or maple syrup, are listed in the beginning of the ingredients list then the food does have added sugars.
  • Foods that are usually high in fiber include fruits, vegetables, and whole grain cereals and breads.
  • Fiber is an important part of a healthy diet and most experts recommend that both children and adults eat a high fiber diet. Reading food labels can help you to choose foods that are high in fiber. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 'people who eat a lot of fiber are less likely to be obese, have heart disease, or develop problems affecting the bowel, including constipation and cancer.'
  • The break out of fiber and sugars will tell you if the food is primarily a whole grain fiber source or more of a simple sugar carb based on which element is proportionally higher.
  • Carbohydrates from whole grain sources such as brown rice are preferable to those contained in refined carbohydrates such as white bread because of the way the body processes them.


7. Protein

Protein does not have a recommended daily value indicated on the food label. Protein needs are actually variable depending on your weight and activity level. In the average American's diet, protein is mostly derived from meat, poultry, fish, and/or eggs. Dairy foods, beans and nuts also contain protein.


8. Vitamins and Minerals

There isn't a whole lot of information about vitamins and minerals on nutrition labels, but information is required for Vitamins A and C, and the minerals iron, calcium, and sodium. Except for sodium (which we generally want to limit), the exact amount isn't required to be listed, but rather the approximate percentage of the total daily-recommended intake.

Current FDA guidelines indicate that a DV of 5% or less is low and a DV of 20% or more is high for a food component. Foods that are a good source for a particular vitamin contain between 10 to 19% DV of that nutrient in each serving.


9. Ingredients

Each product should list the ingredients on the label. They are listed from largest to smallest amount (by weight). This means a food contains the largest amount of the first ingredient and the smallest amount of the last ingredient.


10. Label Claims

Another aspect of food labeling is label claims. Some food labels make claims such as "low cholesterol" or "low fat." These claims can only be used if a food meets strict government definitions. Here are some of the meanings:

  • Trans-Fat Free - Trans-fats are bad for your health so you want to avoid them, but the words 'trans-fat free' can be stated on any product that has less than 0.5 gram (gm) of trans-fat per serving. If you're eating multiple servings of the food, you might actually be getting some unwanted trans-fats. To be sure your product is truly trans-fat free, check out the ingredients list to look for partially hydrogenated oils. If they're on the ingredient list, there probably is some trans-fat in your product. Keep in mind that a 'trans-fat free' food product isn't necessarily good for you and it doesn't mean it's completely fat-free. It may still contain loads of fats and the calories that come along with them. Look at the Nutrient Facts label on the back or the side of the product to see how much fat and calories are in each serving.


  • Reduced or Lowered Fat, Sugar or Sodium - When the label states the food is reduced in fat, sugar or sodium, it means the product has at least 25% less of that ingredient than that company's regular version of that same product. But the reduction may not always be that significant. For example, one brand of soy sauce may contain 920 mg sodium per one-half ounce serving (which is more than half the sodium you can have per day on a reduced sodium diet). The reduced-sodium version contains 575 mg sodium. While that's definitely reduces, it still has a lot of sodium. If the label says the product is 'low-fat' or 'low-sodium' instead of reduced fat or sodium, the claim is a bit more specific. Low-fat foods must have less than 3 gm total fat per serving and low-sodium foods must contain less than 140 gm sodium per serving.


  • Light or Lite - For a food to be considered 'light' it has to have 1/3 fewer calories, fat or sodium of the regular version of that same product. Look at the Nutrient Facts labels to find out exactly how many calories, fat or sodium you're really saving. Compare one brand of chocolate ice cream with the light version. There's less than half the fat in the light version, but it only has 30 fewer calories per 1/2 cup serving. A big bowl of the light ice cream will still rack up the extra calories quickly.


  • Natural - Foods that use this claim can't have any synthetic ingredients or additives in the food product. However, that doesn't mean the food product is naturally healthy because it may still be high in fats, sodium, sugars and calories. And don't let words like 'made with natural sugar' fool you into thinking the product is better for you because it's made with regular refined sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup - they're both bad if consumed in large amounts.


  • Made With … - This claim makes it appear the food has more of the specific ingredient than it really does. For example, if something is labeled as 'made with organic ingredients,' only 70% of the ingredients need to be organic; the remaining 30% don't have to be organic at all. Fully organic foods will state they're '100% Organic.' Some food labels might carry the claim 'made with whole grains,' but that doesn't mean they're 100% whole grain - they may only contain a small amount of whole grain and a substantial amount of refined flours. Look at the ingredients list - if you don't see '100% whole grain' (or 100% whole wheat), find a different product.


  • Health Claims - Some foods can make specific claims about their product's ability to reduce your risk for a certain disease, but these claims need to be cleared with the FDA first. But as always, read the Nutrient Facts label. While the packaging might boast the presence of heart healthy olive oil or omega-3 fats, it might also be hiding hidden sugar, sodium and excess calories.


Learn more…

  • 2,000 calories is the value used as a general reference on the food label. But you can calculate your number at www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/