How To Read Food Labels

Today, consumers know more about the links between diet and disease than they did in the past, and they are demanding still more information on disease prevention. Many people rely on food labels to help them select foods with less saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium and more vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

Food labels appear on virtually all packaged foods, and posters or brochures provide similar nutrition information for fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Packages of meat cuts, ground meats, and poultry also must display nutrition information.

A few foods need not carry nutrition labels: those contributing few nutrients, such as plain coffee, tea, and spices; foods produced by small businesses; and foods prepared and sold in the same establishment. Producers of some of these items, however, voluntarily use food labels.

The Ingredient List

All packaged foods must list all ingredients on the label in descending order of predominance by weight. Knowing that the first ingredient predominates by weight, consumers can glean much information. Compare these products, for example:

  • A beverage powder that contains “sugar, citric acid, natural flavors…” versus a juice that contains “water, tomato concentrate, concentrated juices of carrots, celery….”
  • A cereal that contains “puffed milled corn, sugar, corn syrup, molasses, salt…” versus one that includes “100 percent rolled oats….”

In each comparison, consumers can tell that the second product is more nutrient-dense.

Nutrition Facts Panel

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food labels to include key nutrition facts. The “Nutrition Facts” panel provides such information as serving sizes, Daily Values, and nutrient quantities. Because knowledge about nutrition science has advanced greatly during the two decades or more since food labels were first introduced, the FDA has recently proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts panel to make it easier for consumers to make informed decisions about the foods they eat. The updated panel will also include a refreshed design that displays kcalories and serving size information more prominently to emphasize parts of the label that are most important in addressing public health concerns such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Serving Sizes

Food labels must identify the serving size (food quantity) for which nutrition information is presented. The FDA has established specific serving sizes for various foods and requires that all labels for a given product use the same serving size. By law, serving sizes must be based on the amounts of food or beverage people actually consume, not what they “should” consume.

In general, people are eating and drinking more today than 20 years ago when the label was first designed, so the FDA proposes updating the reference values for serving sizes that manufacturers use, to better reflect what people really eat and drink. For example, the serving size for all ice creams may be changed from 1⁄2 cup to 1 cup. The use of specific serving sizes for vari- ous foods facilitates comparison shopping. Consumers can see at a glance which brand has more or fewer calories or grams of fat, for example.

However, these serving sizes do not provide a standard for desirable consumption. Standard serving sizes are expressed in both common household measures, such as cups, and metric measures, such as milliliters, to accommodate users of both types of measures.

In addition to updating serving sizes for certain products, the FDA may require some food and beverages previously labeled as more than one serving to be labeled as a single serving because people typically eat or drink them in one sitting. Examples are a 20-ounce soda or a 15-ounce can of soup. Certain larger packages may have a two-column label because some people may consume them in one sitting while others may consume them in two or three sittings. For example, a 24-ounce can of soda or a 19-ounce can of soup be one serving for one person but not for another.

When examining the nutrition information on a food label, consumers need to compare the serving size on the label with how much they actually eat and adjust their calculations accordingly. For example, if the serving size is four cookies and you only eat two, then you need to cut the nutrient and kcalorie values in half; similarly, if you eat eight cookies, then you need to double the values. The number of servings per container is listed just above the serving size on the updated label.

The Daily Values

To help consumers evaluate the information found on labels, the FDA created a set of nutrient standards called the Daily Values specifically for use on food labels. The Daily Values do two things: they set adequacy standards for nutrients that are desirable in the diet such as protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and they set moderation standards for other nutrients that must be limited, such as fat, and saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

The “% Daily Value” column on a label provides a ballpark estimate of how individual foods contribute to the total diet. It compares key nutrients in a serving of food with the daily goals of a person consuming 2000 kcalories. Although the Daily Values are based on a 2000-kcalorie diet, people’s actual energy intakes vary widely; some people need fewer calories, and some people need many more.

This makes the Daily Values most useful for comparing one food with another and less useful as nutrient intake targets for individuals. By examining a food’s general nutrient profile, however, a person can determine whether the food contributes “a little” or “a lot” of a nutrient, whether it contributes “more” or “less” than another food, and how well it fits into the consumer’s overall diet.

The proposed label will include updated Daily Values for calcium, potassium, sodium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D. The Daily Value footnote will better explain the standards to consumers.

Nutrient Quantities

In addition to the serving size and the servings per container, the FDA requires that the Nutrition Facts panel on a label present nutrient information in two ways—in quantities (such as grams) and as percentages of the Daily Values. The proposed Nutrition Facts panel must provide the nutrient amount, percent Daily Value, or both for the following:

  • Total food energy (calories)
  • Total fat (grams and percent Daily Value)—note that the proposed revision does not include calories from fat 
  • Saturated fat (grams and percent Daily Value)
  • Trans fat (grams)
  • Cholesterol (milligrams and percent Daily Value)
  • Sodium (milligrams and percent Daily Value)
  • Total carbs, including starch, sugar, and fiber (grams and percent Daily Value)
  • Dietary fiber (grams and percent Daily Value)
  • Sugars, which include both those naturally present in and those added to the foods (grams)
  • Added sugars (grams)—note that the original label does not include a line for added sugars
  • Protein (grams)
  • The following vitamins and minerals (percent Daily Value): vitamin D, potassium, iron, and calcium

Food energy from fat will no longer be required to appear on the label because research shows that the type of fat is more important than the amount. Note that vitamin D and potassium will be required because these are nutrients of concern for consumers, whereas vitamins A and C, once mandatory, will no longer be required but can be included on a voluntary basis.

The FDA developed the Daily Values for use on food labels because comparing nutrient amounts against a standard helps make them meaningful to consumers. A person might wonder, for example, whether 1 milligram of iron or calcium is a little or a lot. The Daily Value for iron is 18 milligrams, so 1 milligram of iron is enough to take notice of: it is more than 5 percent. But because the current Daily Value for calcium on food labels is 1000 milligrams (and the proposed is 1300), 1 milligram of calcium is a negligible amount.

Front-of-Package Labels

Some consumers find the many numbers on Nutrition Facts panels overwhelming. They want an easier and quicker way to interpret information and select products. Food manufacturers responded by creating front-of-package labels that incorporate text, color, and icons to present key nutrient facts. Without any regulations or oversight, however, different companies used a variety of different symbols to describe how healthful their products were.

To calm the chaos and maintain the voluntary status of front-of-package labels, major food industry associations created a standardized presentation of nutrient information called Facts Up Front. Whether consumers find this approach to be the most helpful remains to be seen. The FDA is currently evaluating the program and reviewing recommendations from the Institute of Medicine to determine the best way to present front-of-package information.

Claims on Labels

In addition to the Nutrition Facts panel, consumers may find various claims on labels. These claims include nutrient claims, health claims, and structure-function claims.

Nutrient Claims

Have you noticed phrases such as “good source of fiber” on a box of cereal or “rich in calcium” on a package of cheese? These and other nutrient claims may be used on labels only if the claims meet FDA definitions, which include the conditions under which each term can be used. For example, in addition to having less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol, a “cholesterol-free” product may not contain more than 2 grams of saturated fat and trans fat combined per serving.

Some descriptions imply that a food contains, or does not contain, a nutrient. Implied claims are prohibited unless they meet specified criteria. For example, a claim that a product “contains no oil” implies that the food contains no fat. If the product is truly fat-free, then it may make the no-oil claim, but if it contains another source of fat, such as butter, it may not.

Health Claims

Health claims describe the relationship of a food or food component to a disease or health-related condition. In some cases, the FDA authorizes health claims based on an extensive review of the scientific literature. For example, the health claim that “diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure,” is based on enough scientific evidence to establish a clear link between diet and health. Such reliable health claims still appear on food labels, and they have a high degree of scientific validity.

In cases where there is emerging—but not established—evidence for a relationship between a food or food component and disease, the FDA allows the use of qualified health claims that must use specific language indicating that the evidence supporting the claim is limited.

A qualified health claim might state that “Very limited and pre- liminary research suggests that eating one-half to one cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. The FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting the claim.” Unfortunately, many consumers are not knowledgeable enough to distinguish between scientifically reliable claims and those that are best ignored.

Structure-Function Claims

Structure-function claims describe the effect that a substance has on the structure or function of the body but do not make reference to a disease—for example, “calcium builds strong bones.” Unlike health claims, which require food manufacturers to collect scientific evidence and petition the FDA, structure-function claims can be made without any FDA approval. Product labels can claim to “slow aging,” “improve memory,” and “support immunity and digestive health” without any proof. The only criterion for a structure-function claim is that it must not mention a disease or symptom. Unfortunately, structure-function claims can be deceptively similar to health claims. Consider these statements:

  • “May reduce the risk of heart disease.”
  • “Promotes a healthy heart.”

Although most consumers do not distinguish between these two types of claims, the first is a health claim that requires FDA approval, whereas the second is an unproven, but legal, structure-function claim. Figure 1-9 compares the three types of label claims.


Food labels list the ingredients, the serving size, the number of kcalories provided, and the key nutrient quantities in a food—information consumers need to select foods that will help them meet their nutrition and health goals.

Daily Values are a set of nutrient standards created by the FDA for use on food labels.

Reliable health claims are backed by the highest standards of scientific evidence.

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