How to Read Food Labels

Just about every packaged food made in the U.S. has a food label indicating serving size and other nutritional information. The “Nutrition Facts” food labels are intended to give you information about the specific packaged food in question. Measurements of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals are calculated for a “typical portion.” But, reading these labels can be confusing. Below is an example of a Nutrition Facts label, along with explanations of its components.

Serving Size: Serving sizes are based on the amount of food people typically eat, which makes them realistic and easy to compare to similar foods. This may or may not be the serving amount you normally eat. It is important that you pay attention to the serving size, including the number of servings in the package and compare it to how much you actually eat. The size of the serving on the food package influences all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. For example, if a package has 4 servings and you eat the entire package, you quadruple the calories, fat, etc. that you have eaten.

Calories and Calories From Fat: The number of calories and grams of nutrients are provided for the stated serving size. This is the part of the food label where you will find the amount of fat per serving.

Nutrients: This section lists the daily amount of each nutrient in the food package. These daily values are the reference numbers that are set by the government and are based on current nutrition recommendations. Some labels list daily values for both 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets.

“% Daily Value” shows how a food fits into a 2,000 calorie/day diet. For diets other than 2,000 calories, divide by 2,000 to determine the % Daily Value for nutrients. For example, if you are following a 1,500 calorie diet, your % Daily Value goal will be based on 75% for each nutrient, not 100%.

For fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, choose foods with a low % Daily Value. For total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, try to reach your goal for each nutrient.

Calories Per Gram: This information shows the number of calories in a gram of fat, carbohydrate and protein.

Ingredients: Each product should list the ingredients on the label. They are listed from largest to smallest amount (by weight). This means a food contains the largest amount of the first ingredient and the smallest amount of the last ingredient.

Label Claim: Another aspect of food labeling is label claims. Some food labels make claims such as “low cholesterol”” or “low fat.” These claims can only be used if a food meets strict government definitions.

Here are some of the meanings:

LABEL CLAIMDEFINITION
(per standard serving size)
Fat-free* or sugar-freeLess than 0.5 gram (g.) of fat or sugar
Low fat3 g. of fat or less
Reduced fat or reduced sugarAt least 25% less fat or sugar
Cholesterol freeLess than 2 milligrams (mg.) cholesterol and 2 g. or less of saturated fat
Reduced cholesterolAt least 25% less cholesterol and 2 g. or less of saturated fat
Calorie freeLess than 5 calories
Low calorie40 calories or less
Light or lite1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat; if more than half the calories come from fat, fat content must be reduced by 50% or more

Provided by ArmMed Media
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD