People look at food labels for different reasons. But whatever the reason, many consumers would like to know how to use this information more effectively and easily. The following label-building skills are intended to make it easier for you to read and use nutrition labels to make quick, informed food choices that contribute to a healthy diet.
THE SERVING SIZE
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)
For example, one serving of Kraft Macaroni & 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.
CALORIES & CALORIES FROM FAT
Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food. Many people 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).
For example, there are 250 calories in one serving of a box of Kraft Macaroni & 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.
THE NUTRIENTS: HOW MUCH?
Limit these nutrients: Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium
The nutrients listed first are the ones generally eaten in adequate amounts, or even too much. Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure.
Get enough of these: Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron
UNDERSTANDING THE FOOTNOTE
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.
NUTRIENTS WITHOUT A %DV: Trans Fats, Protein, and Sugars
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.
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.
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.