Understanding Nutrition Labels
The first place to start when you look at the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size. Pay attention to how many servings there are in the food package. (Often times, packages that appear to be only one serving contain two or two and a half.)
Calories (and Calories from Fat)
Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of food. Remember: the number of servings you consume will determine the number of calories you actually eat – this is your portion amount.
General Guide to Calories:
40 calories is low
100 calories is moderate
400 calories or more is high
The Nutrients: How Much?
Look at the top of the nutrient section in the sample label. It lists some key nutrients that
impact your health and separates them into two main groups:
Nutrients to LIMIT
The nutrients listed first are the ones Americans generally eat in adequate amounts or,
often, 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, or high
Nutrients to try to GET ENOUGH OF
Most Americans don’t get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in
their diets. Consuming the recommended amounts of these nutrients can improve your
health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions.
Understanding the Footnote on the Bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label
Note the * used after the heading % Daily Value on the Nutrition Facts label. It refers to
the footnote in the lower part of the nutrition label, which states “%DVs are based on a
2,000 calorie diet”. This statement is required to appear on all food labels.
The Percent Daily Value (%DV)
The % Daily Value is based on the daily value recommendations for key nutrients. Note
that these amounts are based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet. Like many other people,
you may not know how many calories you consume in a day. But you can still use the
%DV as a frame of reference for calories and certain nutrients. In other words, this
percentage can help you gauge if a serving of food contains a high or low amount of a
5%DV or less is low for all nutrients – those you want to limit (saturated fat, trans
fats, cholesterol, and sodium) AND those that you want to consume in greater
amounts (fiber, calcium, etc.)
20%DV or more is high for all nutrients.
Trans Fats, Protein, and Sugars:
Note that Trans Fats, Sugars and Protein do not list a %DV on the Nutrition Facts label.
Trans Fats: Try to avoid products containing trans fats. Scientific reports link trans fat
(and saturated fat) to raising blood LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, which can increase
your risk of coronary heart disease, a leading cause of death in the US.
Sugars: No daily recommendations have been established for sugars. Keep in mind
that the sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label include both naturally occurring sugars
(like those in fruit and milk) and artificial sugars (those added to food and drinks). Check
the ingredient list for specifics on added sugars.
Remember that the ingredients appear in order of amount included in the recipe. So if
you are concerned about your intake of sugar, make sure that added sugars are not
listed as one of the first few ingredients. Some names of added sugars include corn
syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose,
honey, and maple syrup.
Protein: A %DV is required to be listed if a claim is made for protein, such as “high in
protein” or if the food is meant for use by infants or children under 4 years old.
Otherwise, it is not required. (Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is
not a public health concern for adults and children over 4 years of age in the US.)
Points to Remember
Health experts recommend keeping your intake of saturated fat, trans fats, and
cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet. To limit nutrients that have no %DV, like trans fats and sugars, compare the
labels of similar products and choose the food with the lowest amount.