How to Read a Food Label

How to Read a Food Label

Updated November 2020. 

Food labels can be overwhelming. There’s a lot of information to understand and it can be challenging to figure out the takeaways. Let's break it down one piece at a time.

The information in the top portion of the Nutrition Facts Label will offer specific information for each food item (serving size, calories, and nutrient information). This information will differ from item to item.

The bottom portion will contain a footnote with % Daily Values for 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets. It also lists dietary recommendations for important nutrients, including fats, sodium, and fiber. Those recommendations don't change from item to item.

Here is what to focus on when reading a Nutrition Facts Label.

Serving size

  • Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in similar measurements (cup, pieces).
  • The size of the serving determines the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the label.
  • Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package.
  • Ask yourself, “How many servings am I consuming?” If you eat two servings, then you have consumed twice the amount of the calories and other nutrients, including the Percent Daily Values.

Calories (and calories from fat)

  • Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of food. Most Americans will eat more calories than they need without even meeting the recommended intakes for several nutrients.
  • The calorie section can help you manage your weight.
  • Tips for calories:
    • 40 calories is low
    • 100 calories is moderate
    • 400 calories or more is high

Nutrients to limit

  • The nutrients listed on the food label are those Americans generally eat in adequate amounts, or too much (total fat, cholesterol, sodium). Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases.
  • Keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a well-balanced diet.

Nutrients to eat more of

  • Most Americans don’t get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets.
  • Eating enough of these will help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions.

Understanding the footnote on the bottom of the food label

  • On this portion of the food label, it's important to notice that the "% Daily Values" are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. This statement must be on all food labels.
  • It is also important to notice that 2,000 calories represents an average calorie intake recommended for healthy adults. Everyone’s caloric needs are different.
  • The footnote will always be the same and does not change from product to product, because it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans. It is not about a specific food product.

The Percent Daily Value (%DV)

  • The % Daily Values are based on the daily recommendations for key nutrients for a 2,000 calorie daily diet.
  • Like most people, you may not know how many calories you consume in a day, or how many you need. However, you can still use the %DV as a frame of reference.
  • The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.
  • A few nutrients, like sugar or trans fat, do not have %DV’s. That is because they are of no nutritional value and should be as limited as possible.
  • 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.

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