Decoding Food Labels

Decoding Food Labels: Main Image
Food labels do all the legwork and contain the information you need to make the best choices for you and your family
To make smart choices in the grocery store, it’s important to understand what’s in the food we eat. Fortunately, food labels do all the legwork and contain the information you need to make the best choices for you and your family. At first glance, food labels might be a little confusing, but once you learn a few key things about how to read them, you’ll be able to easily determine if a particular product is right for you.

Food label basics

By law, every food label must provide:

  • The common name of the product
  • The name and contact information of the product manufacturer
  • The total contents of the package by weight or count
  • The size of a serving and how many servings are contained in a package
  • Ingredients listed in descending order of predominance by weight—the ingredient weighing the most is listed first and the ingredient weighing the least is listed last
  • Nutrition facts identifying the quantities of calories, total fat, saturated and trans fats, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, fiber, cholesterol, and sodium in one serving
  • Information on whether the food contains any of the eight major food allergens, which are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans

Much of the information on food labels is based around the concepts of the daily value (DV) and the percent DV (%DV). Keep in mind that:

  • DVs are similar to recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for many nutrients.
  • For those nutrients lacking an established RDA in 1990, when the labeling law went into effect, a DV was determined instead. DVs are used on food labels.
  • Both DVs and RDAs provide an estimate of the amount of each nutrient needed to maintain good health.
  • Percent DVs are a way to assess whether a food contains a little or a lot of any particular nutrient. For example, knowing a food provides 50% of the DV for vitamin C is more helpful than knowing it contains 45 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C; most of us don’t have the DVs memorized.
  • The %DV of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium in one serving of a food must be listed on the label.

Using daily value to count calories

Fat, carbohydrates, and protein are called macronutrients. These are the nutrients that provide calories, or energy, in the diet. The amount of fat, carbohydrates, and protein we need for good health depends in part on our body size, activity levels, and how many calories we eat. This is particularly important for fat, because many people eat more fat than is recommended for good health. For example, a 100 pound woman would need fewer calories in general than a 200 pound man and should therefore eat fewer grams of fat as well. This is important, because the %DV listed for each macronutrient is typically given for an “average,” 2,000 calorie or 2,500 calorie diet.

If you eat significantly fewer calories than the average diet, as a 100 pound woman probably would, the food likely contributes more toward meeting your specific DVs for fat than the label indicates. If you eat much more than 2,000 or 2,500 calories, as a highly active 200 pound man might, the food likely provides a smaller percentage of your fat DV.

More or less?

For micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals, %DVs do not vary by calorie intake. Whether you want the %DV of a particular nutrient to be higher or lower in the food you eat, depends upon the nutrient. If the nutrient is something most people need to limit for good health, it is better if the %DV is lower. If the nutrient is something for which many people come up short, a higher %DV is better.

As an example, consider trans fat, sodium, and sugar. People who eat a lot of packaged foods may eat more trans fat, sodium, and sugar than is recommended for good health. In this case, foods with lower %DVs for these nutrients are the healthier choice.

On the other hand, many people may not get the recommended amounts of fiber, vitamin A, and calcium for good health. Foods with higher %DVs for these nutrients are often the healthier choice.

Combing through claims

The front of the label is another great place to gather information. This is where you can find claims, such as that a food is low-fat, low-sodium, or high-fiber. Understanding some of the more common claims can help you make smarter choices in the grocery store. To make certain claims on a label, a food must meet specific requirements. Here is a list of common claims and the requirements that must be met to make each claim:

  • Less, fewer, or reduced. At least 25% less of a given nutrient than the comparison food; for example, reduced fat cheese would have at least 25% less fat than regular cheese
  • Low fat. Three grams (g) of fat or less per serving
  • Fat free. No added fat or oil and less than 0.5 g of fat per serving
  • Low cholesterol. 20 mg or less cholesterol and 2 g or less saturated fat per serving
  • Cholesterol free. Less than 2 mg cholesterol and 2 g or less saturated fat per serving
  • Low calorie. 40 calories or less per serving
  • Low sodium. 140 mg of sodium or less per serving
  • Very low sodium. 35 mg of sodium or less per serving
  • Healthy. Low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and provide at least 10% of the DV for vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.
  • Good source of, more, or added. Provides 10% more of the DV per serving than the comparison food; for example, if regular orange juice provides 2% of the DV for calcium, orange juice with the “added calcium” claim must provide at least 12% of the DV for calcium
  • Rich in or excellent source of. Provides 20% or more of the daily value per serving for a given nutrient
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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