Nutrition Facts Labels

Making healthy choices often depends on learning how to read food labels and on paying close attention to them when shopping. Food packaging is designed to make consumers think that the food within the package is healthy, often containing health claims such as "low-fat" or "no cholesterol."

Although food manufacturers must adhere to strict standards when using specific terms, these claims do not necessarily mean that a food is healthy. For example, a food that is labeled "low-fat" may be high in sugar or sodium, and a food labeled "no cholesterol" can still be high in fat.

The only way to determine whether a food product is a healthy choice is to read the information in the "Nutrition Facts" label. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture require that all packaged foods display a nutrition information chart, the Nutrition Facts label.

About Food Labels

This label usually is located on the back or side of the packaging. A qualified health care provider, licensed dietician, or nutritionist can provide specific information about what to look for on food labels.

Food labels contain information about serving size and percent (%) daily values. At the top of the Nutrition Facts chart is an entry labeled "Serving Size." This amount is determined by the food manufacturer and must be based on a realistic amount.

The important thing to remember about serving size is that the other information on the chart is based on this value. For example, if the serving size listed on a box of crackers is 6 pieces and the number of calories is 120, that number of calories is based on 6 crackers. If 8 crackers are eaten, the number of calories consumed will actually be 160. If the amount of sodium for the 6 piece serving size is 100 mg, the amount of sodium for 8 crackers is 130 mg.

Daily Values

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends specific daily amounts of certain nutrients. These nutrient amounts are called daily values (DV). The percent of the daily value that a food product provides per serving is listed as Percent Daily Values (%DV) on the Nutrition Facts label. This information is included on every packaged food item sold in the United States.

The %DV reported on Nutrition Facts labels are based on an average adult diet of 2000 calories per day. The actual number of calories that a person needs is based on age, weight, gender, and level of physical activity. Therefore, less active adults may need fewer calories while more active adults may require more calories.

The most helpful way to use %DV is to compare similar products while shopping. In general, products that contain high percentages of vitamins, minerals, and fiber and lower %DV of cholesterol, fat, and sodium are healthier.

A food can be considered a good source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber if the percent daily value is between 10 and 19 percent. If a food provides more than 20 percent of the daily value, it is considered high in that nutrient. If it provides 5 percent or less of the daily value, it is considered low in that nutrient.

Sugar and trans fats do not have a reported %DV. The amount of sugar reported on the Nutrition Facts label includes naturally occurring sugar and added sugar. Therefore, it is important to check the ingredients list to avoid added sugar or other sweeteners and trans fats.

The USDA recommends that people consume no more than 10 teaspoons of added sugar (160 calories) per day in a 2,000 calorie per day diet. Since it can be tricky to determine just how much added sugar you are consuming, keep the following in mind the next time you go food shopping:

  • Be aware that sugar goes by many names—including those above, as well as syrup, corn sweetener, molasses and anything that ends in "ose"—such as maltose, sucrose, and fructose.
  • Ingredients in packaged foods are shown in descending order by weight; the higher up a form of sugar is listed, the more the product contains.
  • You can also check a product's Nutrition Facts Panel to figure out the number of grams of sugar per serving; since each gram of sugar contains 4 calories, multiplying the number of grams by 4 will give you the number of calories from sugar in the item.

Trans fats should be avoided. These fats, which are found in products made with hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, are known to raise bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower good (HDL) cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease.

There also is no %DV for protein, unless the product is meant for children younger than 4 years of age.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 15 Feb 2007

Last Modified: 30 Oct 2014