How to Read the Nutrition Facts Label

HYG-5586
Date: 
09/30/2016
Jennifer Lobb, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences

Food packages often contain words and phrases like “low fat,” “reduced sodium,” “contains whole grain,” and more to make consumers think a food is healthy. These words and phrases provide tidbits of information about food, but the nutrition facts label is the best tool to use to identify and select healthy choices. 

Figure 1: Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2016.

Nutrition facts labels are printed on food packages to help consumers make informed food choices. In May 2016, the nutrition facts label was updated for the first time since its debut in 1994. The changes made to the nutrition facts label are listed in Figure 1. Manufacturers must begin to adopt the new label by July 2018. 

On the new nutrition facts label, calories and serving size are listed in larger, bolded type. The serving size is important to note because it influences the number of calories and all other nutrient amounts listed on the label. In Figure 1, the serving size listed is 2/3 cup and there are 230 calories per serving (2/3 cup) of the food. If a person only ate half a serving of the food (1/3 cup), they would only get half the calories and other nutrients listed on the label. If a person ate two servings of the food (1⅓ cup), they would get twice the calories and other nutrients listed on the label.

Some packages of food contain more than one serving but are commonly eaten in a single day or sitting (e.g. a 24-ounce bottle of soda or a pint of ice cream). To make it easier for consumers to see the nutrients contained in these foods, the updated nutrition facts label requires these packages to have “dual column” labels (Figure 2). These labels show the calories and nutrients in both a single serving and the entire package of the food.

Calories

The number of calories listed on the label indicates the amount of energy provided by one serving of the food. Daily caloric requirements vary from person to person by age, gender and activity level. The percent daily value (% DV) listed on the nutrition facts label is based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day. 

% Daily Value

The % daily value (% DV), listed to the right of each nutrient on the label, indicates how much each nutrient in the serving of food contributes to an individual’s daily nutrition needs. These numbers are based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day.

Figure 2: Dual Column Labels
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2016.
Nutrients to Limit

Most Americans eat more than enough fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar. People who consume too much of these nutrients may be at increased risk for certain chronic diseases like heart disease and some cancers. The percent daily value (% DV) indicates whether foods are high or low in these nutrients. In general, 5% or less is considered low and 20% or more is considered high. In the label pictured in Figure 1, for example, the % DV for added sugar in one serving of the food is 20%, so this would be considered a food that is high in sugar. 

Nutrients to Increase

Most Americans do not get enough fiber, iron, calcium, potassium or Vitamin D. These nutrients are important because they help to prevent conditions like osteoporosis, anemia and heart disease. The new nutrition label lists the percent daily value (% DV) for each of these nutrients. Again, the percent daily value (% DV) indicates whether foods are high or low in these nutrients. In general, 5% or less is considered low and 20% or more is considered high. In the label pictured in Figure 1, for example, the % DV for iron in one serving of the food is 45%, so this would be considered a food that is high in iron.

Total Fat

The amount of total fat in one serving of food includes the amount of saturated fat, unsaturated fat—sometimes further broken down into polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat—and trans fat in the food. Eating too much saturated fat and trans fat can increase a person’s risk for heart disease, so it’s a good idea to look for foods that are low in these types of fat.

Total Carbohydrates

The amount of total carbohydrates in one serving of a food includes the amount of fiber, starches and sugar—both added and naturally occurring—in the food. Most Americans eat too much sugar and not enough fiber, so it’s a good idea to look for foods that are high in fiber with little to no added sugar. The new nutrition label lists the amount of added sugar per serving of food.

Protein

There is no percent daily value (% DV) listed for protein because protein needs vary from person to person, and most Americans get enough protein in their diet. 

The Ingredient List

Foods with more than one ingredient have an ingredient list on their label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, the first item having a greater total weight than any of the other ingredients. In addition to the nutrient amounts listed on the nutrition facts label, the ingredient list reveals sources of sugar and sodium that are added to food products. The ingredient list is helpful for people who are trying to limit certain nutrients or avoid certain foods, especially those who have food allergies or sensitivities.

References

Denny, S. (2015). The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Panel. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. www.eatright.org/resource/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/the-basics-of-the-nutrition-facts-panel

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016). Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016). How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm

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