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Do It Yourself Health

How to Read Nutrition Labels

It is important to understand the information contained in nutrition labels in order to make informed decisions about what you eat and feed your family. The Nutrition Facts panel lists the nutrients and the amount of nutrients that a product provides. It is a tool to help consumers make healthful food choices within the framework of the Food Guide Pyramid.

The following information about how to read the Nutrition Facts panel is from the U.S. Food and Drug Administrations Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Sample label for Macaroni & Cheese

1
Serving Size 1 cup (228g)
Servings Per Container 2
2
Amount Per Serving
Calories 250
Calories from Fat 110
3
% Daily Value*

Total Fat 12g 18%
Saturated Fat 3g 15%
Trans Fat 3g
Cholesterol 30mg 10%
Sodium 470mg 20%
Total Carbohydrate 31g 10%
6

  • 5% or less is Low
  • 20% or more is High
4
Dietary Fiber 0g 0%
Sugars 5g
Protein 5g
Vitamin A 4%
Vitamin C 2%
Calcium 20%
Iron 4%
5
Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Calories: 2,000 2,500
Total Fat Less than   65g 80g
Sat Fat Less than   20g 25g
Cholesterol Less than   300mg 300mg
Sodium Less than   2,400mg 2,400mg
Total Carbohydrate 300g 375g
Dietary Fiber 25g 30g

1. Serving Size:

When reading a food label, this is the first place you should begin - the serving size and number of servings contained in the package. Servings sizes are standardized in order to make it easier to compare products and similar foods. Serving sizes are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams.

The size of the serving listed on the food label influences the number of calories and all of the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings are contained in the package. Ask yourself, "How many servings am I consuming?" (E.g. 1/2 serving, 1 serving, or more.) In the sample label above, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals one cup. If you ate the whole package, you would eat two cups. That doubles the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the %Daily Values as depicted in the sample label.

2. Calories (and Calories from Fat):

Calories provide a measure of how much energy you obtain from one serving of the food. The calorie section of the food label can help you manage your weight (i.e., gain, lose or maintain). The number of servings you eat determines the number of calories you actually consume (your portion amount).

In the sample, there are 250 calories in one serving of the macaroni and cheese. There are 110 calories from fat, which means that almost half of the calories in a single serving come from fat. If you ate the entire package contents, you would consume two servings, or 500 calories and 220 of those calories would come from fat.

The FDA's General Guide to Calories provides a general reference for calories when you look at a food label. This guide is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.

General Guide to Calories

  • 40 Calories is low
  • 100 Calories is moderate
  • 400 Calories or more is high

Eating too many calories per day is linked to overweight and obesity.

3 and 4. The Nutrients - How Much?:

The top of the nutrient section of the food label shows some key nutrients that impact your health and separates them into two main groups.

3. Limit these Nutrients: The nutrients listed first in yellow and identified as "Limit these Nutrients," are the ones that Americans generally consume in adequate amounts, or sometimes too much. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases like heart disease, some cancers, and high blood pressure. Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.

4. Get Enough of these Nutrients: Most Americans don't get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets, which are identified in blue as "Get Enough of these Nutrients." Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. For example, consuming enough calcium can reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Eating a diet high in dietary fiber promotes healthy bowel function. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.

5. The Footnote on the Bottom of the Food Label:

*
Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Calories: 2,000 2,500
Total Fat Less than   65g 80g
Sat Fat Less than   20g 25g
Cholesterol Less than   300mg 300mg
Sodium Less than   2,400mg 2,400mg
Total Carbohydrate 300g 375g
Dietary Fiber 25g 30g
Note the * used after the heading "%Daily Value" on the food label. It refers to the footnote in the lower part of the food label that tells you "%DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie diet." This statement must be on all food labels, but the remaining information in the full footnote may not be on the package if the size of the label is too small. When the entire footnote does appear, it will always be the same for all products. This footnote doesn't change because it shows the recommended dietary advice for all Americans - it isn't about a specific food product.

The amounts circled in red are the Daily Values (DV) for each nutrient listed and are based on public health experts' advice. DVs are recommended levels of intakes. DVs in the footnote are based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. Notice how the DVs for some nutrients change, while others like cholesterol and sodium, remain the same for both calorie amounts.

Examples of DVs versus %DVs
Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet
Nutrient DV %DV Less than
Total Fat 65g = 100%DV Less than
Sat Fat 20g = 100%DV Less than
Cholesterol 300mg = 100%DV Less than
Sodium 2,400mg = 100%DV Less than
Total Carbohydrate 300g = 100%DV At least
Dietary Fiber 25g = 100%DV At least

This is another example to see how the Daily Values (DVs) relate to the %DVs and dietary guidance. For each nutrient listed there is a DV, a %DV, and dietary advice or a goal. By following this dietary advice, you will stay within the public health experts' recommended upper and lower limits for the nutrients listed, based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.

Upper Limit - Eat "Less than": Nutrients that have "upper daily limits" are listed first on the footnote of larger labels and on the example above. Upper limits mean that it is recommended that you stay below - eat "less than" - the Daily Value amounts of the nutrients listed per day. For instance, the DV for Saturated Fat in the yellow section is 20 grams. This amount is 100% DV for this nutrient. Therefore, you should eat "less than" 20 grams or 100%DV per day.

Lower Limit - Eat "At least": The DV for dietary fiber is 25 grams, which is 100%DV. This means that it is recommended that you eat "at least" this amount of dietary fiber per day. The DV for Total Carbohydrate is 300 grams or 100%DV. This amount is recommended for a balanced daily diet that is based on 2,000 calories, but can vary, depending upon your daily intake of fat and protein.

6. Percent Daily Value (%DV):

The % Daily Values (%DVs) are based on the Daily Value recommendations for key nutrients but only for a 2,000 calorie daily diet - not 2,500 calories. Most people don't know how many calories they consume in a day, but you can still use the %DV as a frame of reference whether or not you consume more or less than 2,000 calories.

The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. The label interprets the numbers (grams and milligrams) by putting them all on the same scale for the day (0-100%DV). The %DV column doesn't add up vertically to 100%. Instead, each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirements for that nutrient (for a 2,000 calorie diet). You can then determine high from low, and know which nutrients contribute a lot or a little to your daily recommended allowance (upper or lower).

% Daily Value*

Total Fat 12g 18%
Saturated Fat 3g 15%
Trans Fat 3g
Cholesterol 30mg 10%
Sodium 470mg 20%
Total Carbohydrate 31g 10%
Dietary Fiber 0g 0%
Sugars 5g
Protein 5g
Vitamin A 4%
Vitamin C 2%
Calcium 20%
Iron 4%
Quick Guide to %DV: 5%DV or less is low and 20%DV or more is high
The guide above states that 5%DV or less is low for all nutrients, those you want to limit (e.g., fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium), or for those that you want to eat in greater amounts (like fiber, calcium, etc.). As the guide also indicates, 20%DV or more is high for all nutrients.

For example, check out the amount of Total Fat in one serving listed on the sample food label. 18%DV is below 20%DV, so it is not yet high, but if you ate the entire package (two servings), you would be eating 36% of your daily allowance for Total Fat. After eating just one food, it would leave you with 64% of your fat allowance for all the other foods that you would eat that day.