Reading and Understanding Food Labels

Info courtesy of the FDA…

The following label-building skills are intended to make it easier for you to use nutrition labels to make quick, informed food choices that contribute to a healthy diet.

The Nutrition Facts Label – An Overview:

The information in the main or top section (see #1-4 and #6 on the sample nutrition label below), can vary with each food product; it contains product-specific information (serving size, calories, and nutrient information). The bottom part (see #5 on the sample label below) contains a footnote with Daily Values (DVs) for 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets. This footnote provides recommended dietary information for important nutrients, including fats, sodium and fiber. The footnote is found only on larger packages and does not change from product to product.

In the following Nutrition Facts label we have colored certain sections to help you focus on those areas that will be explained in detail. You will not see these colors on the food labels on products you purchase.


Sample Label for Macaroni & Cheese
#1. Start Here with the serving size. Title and Serving Size Information section of label, with number of servings.
#2. Calories from Fat. Calorie section of label, showing number of calories per serving and calories from fat.
#3. Limit These Nutrients: Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium. Total Fat, Saturated Fat Cholesterol, Sodium with Total Carbohydrate section of label, with quantities and % daily values. #6. Quick Guide to %DV.
#4. Get Enough of These Nutrients: Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. Remaining Carbohydrates, including Dietary Fiber and Sugars, Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron section of label with % daily values, and quantities for fiber, sugar and protein. #6. Quick Guide to %DV: 5% or less is Low / 20% or more is High.
#5. The Footnote, or Lower part of the Nutrition Facts Label. Footnote section of label, indicating quantities of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, and dietary fiber for 2000 and 2500 calorie diets.


image of circle 1 The Serving Size

Serving Size section of label.(#1 on sample label):
The first place to start when you look at the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they 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 on the food package influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package. Then ask yourself, “How many servings am I consuming”? (e.g., 1/2 serving, 1 serving, or more) In the sample label, 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 shown in the sample label.

Single Serving %DV Double Serving %DV
Serving Size 1 cup (228g) 2 cups (456g)
Calories 250 500
Calories from Fat 110 220
Total Fat 12g 18% 24g 36%
Trans Fat 1.5g 3g
Saturated Fat 3g 15% 6g 30%
Cholesterol 30mg 10% 60mg 20%
Sodium 470mg 20% 940mg 40%
Total Carbohydrate 31g 10% 62g 20%
Dietary Fiber 0g 0% 0g 0%
Sugars 5g 10g
Protein 5g 10g
Vitamin A 4% 8%
Vitamin C 2% 4%
Calcium 20% 40%
Iron 4% 8%


Circle 2 Calories (and Calories from Fat)

Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food. Many Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for a number of nutrients. The calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight (i.e., gain, lose, or maintain.) Remember: the number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you actually eat (your portion amount).

Calories from Fat section of label, also showing total calories. (#2 on sample label):
In the example, there are 250 calories in one serving of this macaroni and cheese. How many calories from fat are there in ONE serving? Answer: 110 calories, which means almost half the calories in a single serving come from fat. What if you ate the whole package content? Then, you would consume two servings, or 500 calories, and 220 would come from fat.

General Guide to Calories

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

The General Guide to Calories provides a general reference for calories when you look at a Nutrition Facts label. This guide is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

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


circle 3circle 4 The Nutrients: How Much?

(#3 and 4 on sample label):
Look at the top of the nutrient section in the sample label. It shows you some key nutrients that impact on your health and separates them into two main groups:

Limit These Nutrients

Label section showing Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium, with quantities and % daily values. (#3 on sample label):
The nutrients listed first are the ones Americans generally eat in adequate amounts, or even too much. They are identified in yellow as Limit these Nutrients. 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 blood pressure.

Important: 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.

Get Enough of These

Label sections showing Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron, with % daily values and quantity of dietary fiber. (#4 on sample label):
Most Americans don’t get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets. They 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, getting enough calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis, a condition that results in brittle bones as one ages (see calcium section below). Eating a diet high in dietary fiber promotes healthy bowel function. Additionally, 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.

Remember: You can use the Nutrition Facts label not only to help limit those nutrients you want to cut back on but also to increase those nutrients you need to consume in greater amounts.


circle 5 Understanding the Footnote on the Bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label

Foootnote section of label, indicating values for 2000 and 2500 calorie diets highlighting the statement: * Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.(#5 on sample 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 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 full footnote does appear, it will always be the same. It doesn’t change from product to product, because it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans–it is not about a specific food product.

Look at the amounts circled in red in the footnote–these 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. Note how the DVs for some nutrients change, while others (for cholesterol and sodium) remain the same for both calorie amounts.

How the Daily Values Relate to the %DVs

Look at the example below for another way 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. If you follow this dietary advice, you will stay within public health experts’ recommended upper or lower limits for the nutrients listed, based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet.

Examples of DVs versus %DVs
Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet
Nutrient DV %DV Goal
Total Fat 65g = 100%DV Less than
Sat Fat 20g = 100%DV Less than
Cholesterol 300mg = 100%DV Less than
Sodium 2400mg = 100%DV Less than
Total Carbohydrate 300g = 100%DV At least
Dietary Fiber 25g = 100%DV At least
Upper Limit – Eat “Less than”…

The nutrients that have “upper daily limits” are listed first on the footnote of larger labels and on the example above. Upper limits means it is recommended that you stay below – eat “less than” – the Daily Value nutrient amounts listed per day. For example, the DV for Saturated fat (in the yellow section) is 20g. This amount is 100% DV for this nutrient. What is the goal or dietary advice? To eat “less than” 20 g or 100%DV for the day.<

Lower Limit – Eat “At least”…

Now look at the section in blue where dietary fiber is listed. The DV for dietary fiber is 25g, which is 100% DV. This means it is recommended that you eat “at least” this amount of dietary fiber per day.

The DV for Total Carbohydrate (section in white) is 300g or 100%DV. This amount is recommended for a balanced daily diet that is based on 2,000 calories, but can vary, depending on your daily intake of fat and protein.

Now let’s look at the %DVs.

circle 6 The Percent Daily Value (%DV):

Percent Daily Value

%DV section of the sample label aboveThe % 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. You, like most people, may not know how many calories you 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. Note: a few nutrients, like trans fat, do not have a %DV–they will be discussed later.

Do you need to know how to calculate percentages to use the %DV? No, the label (the %DV) does the math for you. It helps you interpret 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). This way you can tell high from low and know which nutrients contribute a lot, or a little, to your daily recommended allowance (upper or lower).


Quick Guide to %DV:

Nutrients with %DVs section of the label. 5%DV or less is low and 20%DV or more is high
(#6 on sample label):
This guide tells you 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 consume in greater amounts (fiber, calcium, etc). As the Quick Guide shows, 20%DV or more is high for all nutrients.

Example: Look at the amount of Total Fat in one serving listed on the sample nutrition label. Is 18%DV contributing a lot or a little to your fat limit of 100% DV? Check the Quick Guide to %DV. 18%DV, which is below 20%DV, is not yet high, but what if you ate the whole package (two servings)? You would double that amount, eating 36% of your daily allowance for Total Fat. Coming from just one food, that amount leaves you with 64% of your fat allowance (100%-36%=64%) for all of the other foods you eat that day, snacks and drinks included.


1 serving Illustration of previous sentence concerning % fat allowance in one serving.
2 servings Illustration of previous sentence concerning % fat allowance in two servings.
Using the %DV for:

Comparisons: The %DV also makes it easy for you to make comparisons. You can compare one product or brand to a similar product. Just make sure the serving sizes are similar, especially the weight (e.g. gram, milligram, ounces) of each product. It’s easy to see which foods are higher or lower in nutrients because the serving sizes are generally consistent for similar types of foods, (see the comparison example at the end) except in a few cases like cereals.

Nutrient Content Claims: Use the %DV to help you quickly distinguish one claim from another, such as “reduced fat” vs. “light” or “nonfat.” Just compare the %DVs for Total Fat in each food product to see which one is higher or lower in that nutrient–there is no need to memorize definitions. This works when comparing all nutrient content claims, e.g., less, light, low, free, more, high, etc.

Dietary Trade-Offs: You can use the %DV to help you make dietary trade-offs with other foods throughout the day. You don’t have to give up a favorite food to eat a healthy diet. When a food you like is high in fat, balance it with foods that are low in fat at other times of the day. Also, pay attention to how much you eat so that the total amount of fat for the day stays below 100%DV.

Nutrients With a %DV but No Weight Listed – Spotlight on Calcium:

Calcium: Label of nonfat milk with calcium daily value of 30% circled. Look at the %DV for calcium on food packages so you know how much one serving contributes to the total amount you need per day. Remember, a food with 20%DV or more contributes a lot of calcium to your daily total, while one with 5%DV or less contributes a little.

Experts advise adult consumers to consume adequate amounts of calcium, that is, 1,000mg or 100%DV in a daily 2,000 calorie diet. This advice is often given in milligrams (mg), but the Nutrition Facts label only lists a %DV for calcium.

For certain populations, they advise that adolescents, especially girls, consume 1,300mg (130%DV) and post-menopausal women consume 1,200mg (120%DV) of calcium daily. The DV for calcium on food labels is 1,000mg.

Don’t be fooled — always check the label for calcium because you can’t make assumptions about the amount of calcium in specific food categories. Example: the amount of calcium in milk, whether skim or whole, is generally the same per serving, whereas the amount of calcium in the same size yogurt container (8oz) can vary from 20-45 %DV.
Illustration of above sentence.

30% DV = 300mg calcium = one cup of milk
100% DV = 1,000mg calcium
130% DV = 1,300mg calcium


Nutrients Without a %DV: Trans Fats, Protein, and Sugars:

Note that Trans fat, Sugars and, Protein do not list a %DV on the Nutrition Facts label.

Plain Yogurt
Sample label for Pain Yogurt - Trans Fat: 0g, Protein 13g, Sugars 10g
Fruit Yogurt
Sample label for Fruit Yogurt - Trans Fat: 0g, Protein 9g, Sugars 44g

Trans Fat: Experts could not provide a reference value for trans fat nor any other information that FDA believes is sufficient to establish a Daily Value or %DV. Scientific reports link trans fat (and saturated fat) with raising blood LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, both of which increase your risk of coronary heart disease, a leading cause of death in the US.

Important: 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.

Protein: A %DV is required to be listed if a claim is made for protein, such as “high in protein”. Otherwise, unless the food is meant for use by infants and children under 4 years old, none is needed. Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern for adults and children over 4 years of age.

Sugars: No daily reference value has been established for sugars because no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day. Keep in mind, the sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label include naturally occurring sugars (like those in fruit and milk) as well as those added to a food or drink. Check the ingredient list for specifics on added sugars.

Take a look at the Nutrition Facts label for the two yogurt examples. The plain yogurt on the left has 10g of sugars, while the fruit yogurt on the right has 44g of sugars in one serving.

Now look below at the ingredient lists for the two yogurts. Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight (from most to least). Note that no added sugars or sweeteners are in the list of ingredients for the plain yogurt, yet 10g of sugars were listed on the Nutrition Facts label. This is because there are no added sugars in plain yogurt, only naturally occurring sugars (lactose in the milk).

Plain Yogurt – contains no added sugars
Ingredients: Cultured pasteurized grade A nonfat milk, whey protein concentrate, pectin, carrageenan.
Fruit Yogurt – contains added sugars
Ingredients: Cultured grade A reduced fat milk, apples, high fructose corn syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg, natural flavors, and pectin. Contains active yogurt and L. acidophilus cultures.

If you are concerned about your intake of sugars, make sure that added sugars are not listed as one of the first few ingredients. Other names for added sugars include: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, and maple syrup.

To limit nutrients that have no %DV, like trans fat and sugars, compare the labels of similar products and choose the food with the lowest amount.


Comparison Example

Below are two kinds of milk- one is “Reduced Fat,” the other is “Nonfat” milk. Each serving size is one cup. Which has more calories and more saturated fat? Which one has more calcium? 
2% Milkfat
Label of lowfat milk (2% milkfat) with 120 calories, 8%DV fat and 15%DV saturated fat circled. Label of nonfat milk with 80 calories, 0%DV fat and 0%DV saturated fat circled.


Answer: As you can see, they both have the same amount of calcium, but the nonfat milk has no saturated fat and has 40 calories less per serving than the reduced fat milk.


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