Reading Food Labels

Reading Food Labels

Knowing what you're eating is the first step toward a more nutritious diet.  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that most packaged food have a nutrition facts label so that consumers know the nutrient content of the products they purchase. The label can help you make healthier choices when it comes to the food that you eat.

To get the most out of the nutrition facts label, you should understand how its different parts work together. Below are some explanations to help guide you through its different sections.

Serving Size

The serving size is the key to understanding the all the other information on the nutrition facts label. This section of the label shows you two things: how many servings are in the package and how big a serving is.

It’s important to know that all of the nutrition information on the label is based on one serving of food. If you eat two servings of food, you are getting double the calories and nutrition listed on the rest of the label.

Calories

A calorie represents the amount of energy your body gets from food.

Percent Daily Value

Daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet and represent the amount of nutrients that most people need every day.

Knowing the percent daily value helps you to determine whether a food is high or low in a particular nutrient. If a food has 5% of the daily value or less, it is low in that nutrient. If a food has 20% or more of the daily value, it is high in that nutrient.

Nutrients You Should Limit

Fat is an important nutrient and is a major source of energy for your body. There are different kinds of fat. Some are good and some are bad.

Don’t forget that many fat-free items still have calories.

Eating too much unhealthy fat – saturated and trans fats – can increase your risk for heart disease, high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

Saturated fat comes mainly from meat, poultry with skin, whole milk dairy products, coconut and palm kernel oils, and stick margarine.

Trans fat comes from partially hydrogenated oil, the result of a process that involves turning liquid vegetable oil into a solid. You can find trans fat in products such as crackers, cookies, fried foods, shortening, and hard margarine.

Trans fat is worse than saturated fat to eat because not only does it raise bad LDL cholesterol, it also lowers good HDL cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease.

There is no recommended total daily value for trans fat. Your best bet is to keep your intake of trans fat as low as possible by consuming products that contain 0 grams of trans fat on the food label.

(Unsaturated fats [monounsaturated and polyunsaturated] are healthy fats when eaten in moderation and can help to lower your cholesterol. These fats include sunflower, corn, soybean, safflower, olive, canola, and peanut oils, as well as nuts.)

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your liver and other cells produce. Your body also gets cholesterol from food. In fact, about 25% of the cholesterol in your blood comes from the food you eat.

Cholesterol is only found in animal products, like meat and dairy products. Too much cholesterol in your blood can clog your arteries, increasing your risk for a heart attack or stroke. Your goal is less than 200 milligrams per day.

Sodium on the nutrition facts label is the amount of salt there is in one serving of food. Most people eat too much salt because packaged foods often use sodium to flavor and preserve them.

A lower sodium diet can help to reduce blood pressure and the risk of heart disease. To keep sodium in check, choose foods that have a daily value of 5% or less of sodium — and stay away from foods that have a daily value of 20% or more.

Nutrients You Need More Of

Many Americans don’t get enough of certain nutrients that are listed on the nutrition facts label. These nutrients include:

  • Calcium
  • Dietary fiber
  • Iron
  • Potassium*
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C

*Potassium is an optional listing on the nutrition label

Fiber aids in digestion and has numerous health benefits. A high fiber diet is especially beneficial in combination with foods that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fat, extra sugar, and salt. High fiber foods include fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.

Calcium is a mineral that helps to keep your bones and teeth healthy and strong. Good sources of calcium include no-fat or low-fat dairy products, canned salmon with bones, tofu, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and calcium-fortified juice.

Other Nutrients

Carbohydrates are important to eat to maintain a balanced diet. You should get 100% of the daily value, though this amount may vary depending on how much fat and protein you eat in a day. The best carbohydrates to eat are whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans, which will provide you with the vitamins, minerals, and fiber, as well as all the fuel you need.

Protein is on the nutrition label but usually does not have a percent daily value. Since protein is not a public health concern for adults and young children in the U.S., the only time the FDA requires the daily value on the label is when the product claims to be “high in protein.”

Sugar, like protein, has no daily value, though you should limit added sugars as much as possible. Sugar on the nutrition facts label includes naturally occurring sugars in fruit and milk, as well as those added in the manufacturing process.