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Food Label Reading

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 2, 2022.

What is it? Food packages and containers in the U.S. must now give shoppers information about the nutrition of the food in the package. A table called "Nutrition Facts" is on the side or back of most packaged foods. This table tells you exactly how large a serving is and how many servings are in the package. It also has facts about how many calories, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals are in the food. Some food companies have added extra information to help shoppers choose the best food and drinks for their diet.

How do I read and understand food labels? The sections below describe the parts of a food label. It may help to have several food packages in front of you to look at as you read this CareNote. Ask your caregiver for the CareNote about diabetic exchanges if you have diabetes. This will help you work packaged foods into meal plans for your calorie level. Also, ask caregivers to answer any questions you have about food labels not answered in this CareNote.

Understanding the Information in the "Nutrition Facts" Box.

  • Serving Size: This is the amount of food that people should eat for 1 serving. It is written in cups or ounces and also in metric, such as grams (gm) or milliliters (mL). It is important to remember that "serving size" means the cooked, ready-to-eat part of the food.
  • Servings per Container: This tells how many servings are in this package of food in the size described above.
  • Amount per Serving:
    • Total Calories: The total calories in one serving of the food are listed here. For some foods the label will list the calories in this food and add on the calories in another food usually eaten with it. An example of this is cereal. Total calories will be listed for just the cereal as well as for the cereal with 2% milk.
    • Calories from Fat:
      • Fat has 9 calories per gram. The calories from fat are found by multiplying the total grams of fat per serving by 9.
      • To get the percent of calories that are from fat, divide the calories from fat by total calories per serving, and multiply by 100.
      • Only eat a small amount of any food that has more than 30% of calories from fat. Most people should limit their fat calories to 15 to 30% of total calories to lessen their risk for heart disease.
    • % Daily Value: The amount of the nutrient is listed right next to the item in grams (g) or milligrams (mg). The percent (%) daily value or "%DV" is on the right side of the column. It tells you how much of your daily needs are met by one serving of this food. The %DV, is based on a diet of 2000 calories. The % numbers help you decide which foods are the best sources of nutrients, such as calcium, fiber, vitamin A, or B vitamins. Ask your caregiver to help you decide what your daily calorie needs should be.
      • Total Fat: The number of grams of fat per serving will help you decide if this food should be in your diet or not. Any food that has 10 grams of fat or more per serving should be eaten in small amounts. Make sure you eat other fat-free foods to keep your diet balanced.
      • Saturated Fat: Saturated fat is one part of the total fat in a food. It is thought to be more of a cause of heart disease than cholesterol. For this reason, you should not eat more than 10 to 15 grams of saturated fat per day. The best foods for your heart are those that have 1/3 or less of their total fat as saturated fats.
      • Cholesterol: The amount of cholesterol you eat and drink each day should be less than 300 milligrams (mg).
      • Sodium: The daily value for sodium is 2400 mg. Most people can stay healthy by eating 2000 to 4000mg of sodium per day. Talk to your caregiver if you are eating more than 4000 or 5000mg of sodium per day.
      • Potassium: The daily value for potassium is 3500 mg. Some medicines, such as water pills take potassium out of your body. Caregivers may tell you that you need extra potassium if you take these medicines.
      • Total Carbohydrate: The daily value for carbohydrates is 300 gm. You may need more carbohydrates if you exercise a lot or are an athlete. People with diabetes need to control the amount of carbohydrates they eat. This helps to keep their glucose (blood sugar) from going to high or to low.
      • Dietary Fiber: The daily value of dietary fiber is 25 grams. Fiber is one kind of carbohydrate. It is also known as "roughage."
      • Soluble Fiber: Most of the soluble fiber in your food is broken down in the large intestine. It is one part of the total dietary fiber listed above. Soluble fiber helps people with diabetes control their blood glucose. It also helps lower the risk of heart disease.
      • Sugars: Sugars are another type of carbohydrate in food. Sugar includes the naturally sweet part of fruit and other foods as well as added sweeteners.
      • Other Carbohydrates: This number tells how much starch and other non-sugary content is in the food.
      • Protein: Protein is needed to help the cells, organs, blood vessels, skin, and other body tissues live and grow. The daily value for protein is 14g for infants under 1 year and 16g for children under 4 years of age. Pregnant women need about 60g per day, and nursing women need about 65g per day. Most other adults need about 50g protein per day.
      • Vitamins and Minerals: Most Americans get plenty of vitamins and minerals each day but some labels still list the percent of daily value in one serving. Shoppers can tell which foods are higher or lower in vitamins and minerals. Eat a wide variety of foods so that these % numbers from all of your food add up to 100% each day. Following are the recommended daily amount of some vitamins and minerals.
      • Vitamin A % - 5000 units per day.
      • Vitamin C % - 60mg per day.
      • Calcium % - 1g or 1000mg per day.
      • Iron % - 18mg per day.
      • Riboflavin % - 1.7mg per day.
      • Niacin % - 20mg per day.
      • Folic Acid % - 0.4mg per day.
      • Phosphorus % - 1.0g per day.
      • Magnesium % - 400mg per day.
      • Zinc % - 15mg per day.
  • Daily Values Chart: Some food labels have a section that tells how much should be eaten in a 2000 calorie diet and a 2500 calorie diet. This chart lists goals for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, total carbohydrates, and dietary fiber. This chart also shows you how the food in the package might fit into this balanced diet plan.
  • Calories per Gram: Many labels tell you how many calories are in each gram of the major parts of food. Fats contain 9 calories per gram, carbohydrates contain 4, and proteins contain 4. High fat foods can lead to weight gain because fats have more than twice the calories of other types of food.

Understanding the Information Outside the Nutrition Facts Box.

  • Ingredients:
    • The single ingredients in each food are listed according to how much they make up of the food by weight.
    • The list starts with the item that takes up the most weight, and continues in order of content down to the smallest part of the food.
    • If you are trying to eat less of a certain ingredient such as salt, do not buy foods that have it listed first, second, or third.
  • Contains: Some companies list ingredients that often cause allergies, such as wheat, dairy, eggs, soy, and nuts. This helps people avoid items that that cause them problems.
  • Exchanges: The number of diabetic exchanges may be listed on the label to help diabetics plan meals and snacks.

Definition of the Words Used on Food Labels:

  • Meats:
    • The word lean means the meat has less than 10g of total fat per serving. The meat must have less than 4-1/2g of saturated fat. It must also have less than 95mg of cholesterol per 100g serving.
    • Extra lean means the meat has less than 5g total fat. The meat must have less than 2g of saturated fat. It must also have less than 95mg of cholesterol per 100g serving.
  • Fiber:
    • High fiber foods have 5g or more of total fiber per serving.
    • A good source of fiber has 2.5 to 4.9g fiber per serving.
    • Added fiber means that 2.5g or more fiber have been added to a food.
  • Free:
    • Sugar-free means the food has less than 1/2g (0.5g) of added sugar per serving.
    • Calorie-free means the food has fewer than 5 calories per serving.
    • Fat-free means the food has less than 1/2g of total fat per serving. Fat contents below 1/2g are not measured.
    • Cholesterol-free means there are less than 2mg of cholesterol per serving. The food must also have less than 2g of saturated fat.
    • Sodium-free means the food has less than 5mg of sodium per serving.
  • Percent Fat-Free: This tells the portion of the food that is made up of fat-free ingredients. This is measured by weight and is different from percent of calories from fat. If a 100g serving of a food contains 5g total fat, the label can say it is 95% fat-free.
  • Light Or Lite: These terms mean several things. A food must have all of the following qualities to be called light.
    • 1/3 fewer calories per serving than the regular version of this food.
    • 1/2 or less of the total fat of the regular version of this food.
    • 1/2 or less of the sodium of the normal or high-sodium version of the food.
  • Low:
    • Low means you can eat several servings per day of this food and not go over the suggested daily value for that nutrient. The word low is used to describe fat, calorie, and sodium contents of foods.
    • Low fat means less than or equal to 3g total fat per serving.
    • A low calorie food has 40 calories or less per serving.
    • Low cholesterol means 20mg or less per serving.
    • Low sodium means less than or equal to 140mg sodium per serving.
    • Very low sodium means 35mg sodium or less per serving.
  • Reduced: The word "reduced" means the food has 1/4 or 25% less calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, or sugar than normal food. For example, a reduced fat food would have 30 grams of fat instead of the 40 grams in the regular version of the food.
  • More: More means that the food has been fortified or enriched by adding extra amounts of some nutrients. The amount of that item in the food must be 10% more of the daily value than is found in a normal food of that kind. This term is used for fiber, minerals, and protein.
  • Good Source: To be a good source, one serving of the food must contain 10-19% of the daily value of that nutrient.
  • High: A high source of a nutrient, is a food that contains 20% or more of it than the daily value. The label can also say the food is "rich in" or is an "excellent source" of the nutrient.
  • No Added Sugar: This means no sugars were added while the food was being prepared. This also means that this food takes the place of a regular food that is usually much higher in sugar content.

Metric Measures: The size or "volume" and weight of foods are often listed in common household measures. They may also be listed in metric measurements. This list will help you change from one type to the other.

  • 1 teaspoon (tsp) is 5 milliliters (mL) or 5 grams (g).
  • 1 Tablespoon (Tbsp) is 15mL or 15 g.
  • 1 fluid ounce (fl oz) is 30mL or 30g.
  • 1 cubic centimeter (cc) is 1mL.
  • 1 cup is 240mL or 240g.
  • 1 pint is 480mL or 480g.
  • 1 quart is 960mL or 960g.
  • 1 gallon is 3.8 liters (L).
  • 1L is 0.96 quarts (qt).
  • 1 gram is 1000 milligrams (mg).
  • 1 ounce (oz) is 28g.
  • 1 kilogram is 1000g or 2.2 pounds (lb).
  • 1 pound is 454 grams (g).

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about reading food labels and eating healthy. Work with caregivers to plan a healthy diet for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.