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Food Labels

Nutrition information included on food labels can help you know if a food is a healthy choice. Reading and comparing food labels can help you limit nutrients that you want to cut back on and increase nutrients that are good for you. Food labels can also help you avoid ingredients that may be a problem for you.

What do terms such as fortified and low-fat mean?

Food packages often have labels that point out a nutritional value, such as "low in fat and cholesterol" or "fortified with iron." By law, companies can use these terms only if the food meets specific requirements. Here are the requirements for some of these terms.

Fat

  • Fat-free means the food has less than 0.5 grams (g) of fat per serving.
  • Low-fat means 3 g of fat or less per serving.
  • Reduced fat or less fat means the food has at least 25% less fat than the regular product.
  • Trans fat free means the food has less than 0.5 g trans fat per serving. (Remember that even though a food is “trans fat free” because it has less than 0.5 g per serving, it may still contain trans fat. For example, eating many servings of a food with 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving can add up. Try to eat as little trans fat as possible.)

Cholesterol

  • Cholesterol free means less than 2 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per serving. It also means that the food has 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Low cholesterol means 20 mg of cholesterol or less per serving. It also means that the food has 2 g of saturated fat or less per serving.

Salt/sodium

  • Low sodium means 140 mg of sodium or less per serving.

Calories and Sugar

  • Low calorie means 40 calories or less per serving.
  • Sugar-free means less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.
  • Fortified means the food provides at least 10% of the daily requirement for the nutrient the food is fortified with.
  • High or rich means the food contains at least 20% the daily value for a specific nutrient.
  • Gluten-free means the product contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten.

Sometimes you will see a health claim made on a package. An example is, "Diets low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease." These claims are a way of letting you know about the special health benefits of some foods. The FDA allows food producers to include certain approved claims about health benefits on food packages if they are supported by careful research.

How do I read the ingredients list?

Food packages should list the ingredients somewhere on the package. The ingredients are listed in the order of the highest to lowest content by weight. For example, the ingredient list on a can of water packed tuna may read “tuna, water, salt.” The tuna is listed first because it weighs the most and is the main ingredient. The water weighs less than the tuna, and the salt weighs the least. The ingredient lists include any nutrients, color additives, preservatives, fats, or sugars that have been added. Food producers must be sure to list any food ingredient that is a common cause of allergic reactions. The foods that most often cause allergic reactions are milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, fish, soy, and wheat.

How do I use the Nutrition Facts label?

The FDA requires almost all foods in grocery stores to have a Nutrition Facts label. The Nutrition Facts label helps you make healthy food choices. It can also help you compare one food with another. This label is usually on the side or back of the package. Very small packages, foods made in the store, and foods made by small manufacturers do not have to include this label. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and raw fish do not have to be labeled, but the FDA asks stores to use posters to provide this information. The posters show the nutrition content of fruits, vegetables, and fish.

Serving Size: At the top of the nutrition label is the serving size and number of servings in the food package. The serving size is usually less than most people eat. If you eat 2 servings, you will get twice as many calories and twice the daily values listed on the nutrition label. Serving sizes can vary from product to product. If you are comparing 2 similar products, check to see if the serving sizes are the same.

Calories: The number of calories per serving is listed after the serving-size information. Calories are the measure of how much energy you get from a serving of a food. Many Americans take in more calories than they use for energy. Calories your body does not use for energy are stored as fat. Being careful about the number of calories in your diet can help you manage your weight. Generally, 40 calories a serving is low, 100 to 200 calories is average, and 400 calories or more is high. This guide is based on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet.

Most of the information on the Nutrition Facts label is based on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet. The recommended daily calories for you may be higher or lower, depending on your age, gender, and how active you are. For example, inactive or older people usually need just 1600 calories a day. Active people and teenagers may need up to 2800 calories or more a day. Keep this in mind when you read the label because it may mean that you need more or less of certain nutrients than the package label shows. A footnote near the bottom of the label shows the amounts of some nutrients you should get from a 2000-calorie-a-day diet. It may also show these amounts for 2500 calories a day.

Calories from Fat: The label lists the number of calories that come from fat in a serving of the food. The general rule is that less than a third of your daily calories should come from fat. For example, if the food has 200 calories and 100 calories are from fat, 50% of the calories come from fat, which means the food is high in fat.

% Daily Value (% DV): The food label shows the percentage of the recommended daily amounts of important nutrients that you will get from 1 serving. A general guide for % DV is less than 5% is low and over 20% is high.

It’s a good idea to read the labels and choose foods that are low in the following nutrients:

  • Fat: The label lists the total amount of fat (in grams) in 1 serving. Some of the different types of fats are listed below the total fat. Saturated fats and trans fats are bad for you because they raise your cholesterol level. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthy. All fats are high in calories, so even eating healthy fats can lead to weight gain if you eat too much.
  • Cholesterol: Too much cholesterol can lead to heart disease and stroke. Try to eat less than 300 mg each day.
  • Sodium: Much of the sodium (salt) in your diet is hidden inside processed or packaged foods. Try to eat less than 2300 mg each day.

The important nutrients listed on the label are:

  • Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates help give you energy. Sugar, starch, and fiber are different types of carbohydrate.
    • Sugars: Sugar occurs naturally in many foods, such as fruits and milk. It is also added to many foods (such as cookies and snacks). Check the ingredients label for sugar content. Snack foods are often high in sugar content.
    • Fiber: Dietary fiber is listed as part of the total carbohydrate. Fiber provides very few or no calories, but it is an important part of a healthy diet. Eating fiber can help lower your risk of heart disease, keep your bowel movements regular, and lower your cholesterol level. Good sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, peas, and beans. Try to eat at least 20 to 35 g of fiber per day.

    The amount listed for carbohydrates is especially useful to people with diabetes or to others watching the amount of carbohydrates in their diet.

  • Protein: Protein helps build muscle. Your body cannot store protein the way that it can store fat, but most Americans have no problem getting enough protein from the food they eat each day. Eating too much protein can cause health problems for some people. Make sure to eat protein as a part of a well-balanced diet every day.
  • Recommended Amounts of Vitamins and Minerals: Vitamins and minerals are an important part of a healthy diet. Food labels are required to include values for the vitamins and minerals that are most likely to be low in the American diet: vitamins A, C, calcium, and iron. The food label lists the percentage of the recommended daily amounts of these nutrients that you will get from 1 serving. Other nutrients may also be listed. For most people, the goal is to reach 100% for each vitamin and mineral every day. For example, if an orange juice label says that 1 serving has 80% of the DV for Vitamin C, then you need 20% more to fulfill your Vitamin C need for the day. In some cases, you may need more than 100% of some nutrients. For example, teens need 1300 mg of calcium a day, which means they need 130% of the DV.

Some of the nutrients listed on the label (sugar, protein, and trans fat) don’t have a % DV. In such cases, you can compare the amounts of these nutrients with the amounts in a similar product to see which product best meets your needs. You can choose foods higher or lower in protein by looking at the grams of protein per serving of the different foods. For a healthier diet, always choose products with lower amounts of sugar and trans fat.

Eating a variety of foods everyday is the key to good health. Food labels can go a long way in helping you compare similar foods and make the healthiest choices.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2013-02-11
Last reviewed: 2012-04-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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