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Reading Food Labels

What is a food label?

  • Food packages and containers in the United States give shoppers information about the nutritional value of the food in the package. This nutrition information is given to help you make healthier food choices while shopping for food. Some foods do not have nutrition information on them. Some of these foods include bakery food items, produce (fruits and vegetables), fresh meat and foods made by small businesses.
  • The nutrition information is found in the "Nutrition Facts" label. It is found on the side or back of most packaged foods. This label tells you what a serving size is and how many servings are in the package. Other information shown includes the amount of calories, fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals found in the food. Begin reading food labels at the top, with the serving size and number of servings in the package.

How do I read and understand information on the "Nutrition Facts" label?

Serving Size Information:

  • Serving Size: The serving size is usually listed in cups or pieces and sometimes includes a weight (grams, ounces). It is important to remember that "serving size" means the cooked, ready-to-eat part of the food. Compare the amount that you will eat to the given serving size. Remember that double the serving size means double the calories and other amounts listed on the label.
  • Servings per Container: This tells you how many servings are in the package of food in the serving size described above.
Amount per Serving:
  • Calories: The total calories in one serving of the food are listed here. Eating too many calories each day may cause a person to become overweight. Talk to your dietitian (deye-e-TISH-an), nutritionist (noo-TRI-shun-ist) or caregiver about the amount of calories that you should eat each day.
  • Calories from Fat: The number of calories that come from fat in one serving are listed here. You can use this number to figure out how much fat is in the food. For example, a food may have 100 total calories in one serving and 50 calories from fat. By dividing 100 by 50, you know that this food has 50 percent (or one half) of total calories from fat.
Nutrients and their amounts listed on the "Nutrition Facts Label":
  • Reading labels may help you get enough of the nutrients you need each day to be healthy. Reading labels may also help you to eat less of the nutrients that could cause health problems. Eating too much fat, saturated (SACH-er-ay-ted) fat, trans fat, cholesterol (koh-LES-ter-ol) and sodium may increase your risk for certain health problems. Some of these health problems are heart disease and high blood pressure.
    • Percent Daily Value: The percent daily value or "percent DV" is on the right side of the "Nutrition Facts" label. It tells you how much of your daily needs are met by one serving of this food for each nutrient listed. This number is based on a diet of 2000 calories. Your calorie needs may be more or less than 2000 calories. Ask your dietitian, nutritionist or caregiver what your daily calorie needs should be.
      • You can use the percent daily values number to figure out if a food is high or low in a nutrient. A food is low in a nutrient if it provides less than five percent of the nutrient. A food is high in a nutrient if it provides more than twenty percent of the nutrient.
    • Total Fat: This is the total amount of fat that is found in one serving. This amount is listed in grams (g). High fat foods may lead to weight gain. This is because each gram of fat has more than twice the calories of carbohydrate and protein.
    • Saturated Fat: The amount of saturated fat in one serving is listed in grams. Saturated fat is one part of the total fat in a food. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol more than other types of fat. Most people should limit their intake of saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total calories per day. For example, a person who needs 2000 calories per day should eat less than 200 calories from saturated fat.
    • Trans Fat: The amount of trans fat in one serving is listed in grams. Most people should limit this type of fat as much as possible because it also raises blood cholesterol.
    • Cholesterol: The amount of cholesterol in one serving is listed in milligrams (mg). The amount of cholesterol you eat and drink each day should be less than 300 mg. This amount is the same for most people.
    • Sodium: The amount of sodium in one serving is listed in milligrams (mg). The amount of sodium you should eat and drink each day should be less than 2400 mg. Most of the sodium people get in their diet comes from salt.
    • Total Carbohydrate: The amount of carbohydrates in one serving is listed in grams. People with diabetes (deye-ah-BEE-teez) need to control the total amount of carbohydrates they eat. This helps to keep their glucose (blood sugar) from going too high or too low.
    • Dietary Fiber: The amount of dietary fiber in one serving is listed in grams. Fiber is one kind of carbohydrate. The amount of fiber listed on the label is part of the total carbohydrates found in the food. Most people do not eat enough fiber each day. Most adults need about 25 g of dietary fiber each day.
    • Sugars: The amount of sugar in one serving is listed in grams. Sugars are another type of carbohydrate in food. The amount of sugar listed on the label is part of the total carbohydrates found in the food. Sugar includes the naturally sweet part of fruit and other foods as well as added sweeteners. Most people should limit foods high in sugar.
    • Protein: The amount of protein in one serving is listed in grams.
    • Vitamins and Minerals: The food label lists vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. Most people do not get enough of these nutrients each day. There are no amounts listed next to them on the food label. Instead, the percentage of these nutrients that the food provides as part of your daily needs is listed. For example, a food label on milk may list 30 percent next to calcium. This shows that one serving of milk will give you about 30 percent of the calcium that you need for one day.
    • Daily needs for fat, carbohydrate and protein: Most people should limit their intake of fat to about one-third of total daily calories each day, or less. Most people need about one-half of total daily calories from carbohydrates, or more. The amount of protein most people need is about 10 to 20 percent of total calories. Each person's needs may be slightly different. Ask your dietitian or caregiver about the amounts of these nutrients that are right for you.
Other information on the "Nutrition Facts" Label:
  • Percent Daily Values Chart: Some food labels have a section that shows the amounts of some nutrients that should be eaten each day. These amounts are shown for a 2000 calorie diet and a 2500 calorie diet. This chart lists goals for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, and dietary fiber.
  • Calories per Gram: Many labels tell you how many calories are in each gram of the major parts of food. The major parts of food are fat, carbohydrate and protein. Fats contain nine calories per gram, carbohydrates contain four calories, and proteins contain four calories.

How do I read and understand information outside the "Nutrition Facts" Label?

  • Ingredients: The single ingredients in each food are listed in order of their weight (amount) in the food. The list starts with the item that takes up the most weight. The list keeps going in order of weight, down to the smallest part of the food. Some people need to eat less of a certain nutrient. A food that lists this nutrient as the first, second or third ingredient would not be a good choice.
  • Contains: Some companies list ingredients that often cause allergies (AL-er-jeez) (body reaction) such as wheat, dairy, eggs, soy, and nuts. This helps people avoid food items that may cause problems for them.
  • Nutrient Content Claims: Food labels may have words or statements that say something about the nutritional value (amount of nutrients) of the food. These statements have the same meanings for all foods. These words may help you quickly find foods and liquids low in cholesterol, fat, sodium, and sugar. The following are some of these statements, along with their meaning:
    • Calories:
      • "Calorie free": Less than five calories per serving.
      • "Low calorie": Forty calories or less per serving.
      • "Reduced" or "less" calories: At least 25 percent fewer calories per serving when compared to a similar food.
      • "Light" or "Lite": One-third fewer calories, or 50 percent less fat per serving.
    • Sugar:
      • "Sugar free": Less than one-half gram of sugar per serving.
      • "Reduced" or " less" sugar: At least 25 percent less sugar per serving, when compared with a similar food.
    • Fat:
      • "Fat free": Less than one-half gram of fat per serving.
      • "100 percent fat free": Less than one-half gram of fat per serving.
      • "Low fat": Three grams or less per serving.
      • "Reduced" or "less" fat: At least 25 percent less fat, when compared to a similar food.
    • Cholesterol:
      • "Cholesterol free": Less than two mg of cholesterol per serving.
      • "Low cholesterol": Twenty (20) mg or less of cholesterol per serving.
      • "Reduced" or "less" cholesterol: At least 25 percent less cholesterol per serving.
    • Saturated fat:
      • "Saturated Fat Free": Less than one-half gram of saturated fat per serving.
      • "Low Saturated Fat": One gram or less per serving or not more than 15 percent of calories from saturated fat.
      • "Reduced" or "less" saturated fat: At least 25 percent less saturated fat per serving.
    • Sodium:
      • "Sodium free": Less than five mg of sodium per serving.
      • "Low sodium": One-hundred forty (140) mg or less per serving.
      • "Very low sodium": Thirty-five (35) mg or less per serving.
      • "Reduced" or "less" sodium: At least 25 percent less sodium per serving.
  • Health Claims: Food labels may have a message that tells how a food or part of a food affects a disease or a health condition. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved certain health claims that can be made on foods. It is important to read food labels very carefully. Some foods may list health claims that have not been approved by the FDA. These food labels will usually list a statement telling you that the health claim has not been "evaluated" or "approved" by the FDA. The following are examples of food claims that have been approved by the FDA:
    • Calcium decreases a person's risk of getting osteoporosis (os-tee-oh-poh-ROH-sis). (Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become brittle, and break more easily.)
    • Grain products that contain fiber, fruits, and vegetables decrease a person's risk of getting cancer.
    • Saturated fat and cholesterol increases a person's risk of getting heart disease.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2016 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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