Understanding Food Labels and Health Claims

Reading the Food Label
Reading the Food Label. Blend Images - JGI/Tom Grill/Brand X Pictures/Getty

The food label is your friend when it comes to nutrition and portion control. If you have a food allergy, it is essential to read the label. Bring your reading glasses to the store as the print is often tiny.

  • Serving size: This is the amount per serving. It may or may not apply to the whole container; you will find that out in the next number. You may be shocked at how small a "serving" is, as restaurant portions are often two or more servings.
  • Servings per container: You might assume that bag of potato chips is 1 serving and the 140 calories it lists applies to the whole bag. Think again and check: Cans and bags you may believe are single servings could be 2, 2 1/2, 3 or more servings. All the numbers listed below for calories, fat, carbohydrates, etc. are based on one serving, not on the entire container.
  • Percent Daily Values: This number is calculated for each nutrient and based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories for most of them, 2,500 for some. For fat, cholesterol, and sodium the daily intake is a "less than" value as you are encouraged to stay under the daily value. For other nutrients, it is an "at least" value. If the label has less than 5 percent of the daily value of a nutrient, it is considered low in that nutrient. If it has more than 20 percent, it is considered high in that nutrient.
  • Calories: This is the number of calories in one serving. Again, look to make sure how many servings the container holds and what the serving size is. You can determine whether a serving is low or high in calories with these rules of thumb: 40 calories is low, 100 calories is moderate, 400 or more calories is high.
  • Calories from Fat: This is the total calories from fat in one serving of this food.
  • Total Fat: The number of grams of fat in one serving of this food. Health experts recommend limiting the intake of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium, which is why these are listed in this area. You want to aim at staying below the daily value percentage listed.
  • Saturated Fat: The weight of saturated fat in one serving of this food. Try to stay below the daily value; lower is better.
  • Trans Fat: No daily value is given because it is recommended that you eliminate trans fat completely from your diet.
  • Cholesterol: While we need some cholesterol, most of us get too much in our diet. Aim to stay below the daily value.
  • Sodium: As with cholesterol, sodium is a needed part of the diet but we tend to get too much in our diet. Aim to stay below the daily value.
  • Total Carbohydrates: We now enter the section of the label where we aim to meet or exceed the daily value for these nutrients. Total carbs includes complex and simple carbs in one serving of food. These can be sugars, starches, or fiber.
  • Dietary Fiber: Most people do not get enough fiber in their diet. Fiber promotes good bowel function. Aim to exceed the daily value for fiber, 25 to 30 total grams per day.
  • Sugars: Sugars include naturally occurring simple carbohydrates such as lactose in milk, as well as added sugars. These sugars make up the rest of the carbohydrate value.
  • Protein: A daily value for protein isn't listed unless the label makes a claim that it is high in protein.
  • Vitamins and Minerals: Most people do not get enough vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, or iron in their diet. These four items are displayed to help you get enough in your diet.

Reading Ingredient List

Once you get to the top of the food label and into the ingredients, how do you spot fats and sugars you would rather avoid? Bring your reading glasses or a magnifying glass: The print gets tiny on those labels.

The ingredients are listed in descending order by the amount of the food. Here is where food manufacturers can play some word games with us to hide sugars and fats by using creative or confusing names. Is dehydrated cane juice much different from cane sugar? Other ingredients sound like a chemistry lab shopping list. These can be scary or just plain confusing.

Food Allergies

If you have a food allergy or sensitivity to any ingredient, you soon learn to scan the ingredient list for it.
Reading Labels for Food Allergies

Understanding Food Health Claims

U.S. government regulations spell out what terms may be used to describe the level of nutrients in a food.

Free: This means no or insignificant amounts (less than half a gram) of these components: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, and calories. This may also be listed as "without," "no" and "zero." If a food says "fat-free," "non-fat," or "zero fat," then it has less than half a gram of fat.

Low: A food can add "low" in front of a nutrient if it doesn't exceed a certain level per serving of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories. You can eat these foods as part of a balanced diet and will probably not exceed the daily values. Example: low-fat cheese.

  • Low-fat: 3 g or less per serving
  • Low-saturated fat: 1 g or less per serving
  • Low-sodium: 140 mg or less per serving
  • Very low sodium: 35 mg or less per serving
  • Low-cholesterol: 20 mg or less and 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving
  • Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.

Lean and extra lean: These terms describe meat, fish, seafood, and poultry. For those who eat meat, aim to keep your consumption in the lean and extra lean categories.

  • Lean: less than 10 g fat, 4.5 g or less saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g.
  • Extra lean: less than 5 g fat, less than 2 g saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g.

    High: If the food has 20 percent or more of the daily value per serving for a nutrient, it is high in that nutrient.

    Good source: One serving of this food contains 10 to 19 percent of the daily value for that nutrient.

    Reduced: For foods not naturally low in a certain nutrient, it can be called reduced if it has been altered to have 25 percent less of that nutrient.

    For example, reduced-fat milk or reduced-fat cheese, as the natural milk or cheese are at least 25 percent higher in fat.

    Less or Fewer: This term compares the food to a reference food and claims 25 percent less of a nutrient or calories than the reference food. A common example are potato chips that claim 25 percent less fat or 25 percent fewer calories than other potato chips.

    Light: A food can call itself light if it has 1/3 fewer calories or half the fat of the reference food. Example: light sour cream would have less fat and/or calories than regular sour cream. It can claim to be light in sodium if the sodium content is reduced by at least 50 percent.

    More: This means the food has a nutrient that is at least 10 percent of the daily value more than the reference food.

    Healthy: To call itself "healthy," a food must be low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. If it is a single-item food, it must provide at least 10 percent or more of the daily value of vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.

    Some foods are naturally healthy unless they are modified: fruits, vegetables, and some grains. For frozen entrees and multi-course frozen dinners, they must also provide 10 percent of two or three of the listed vitamins, minerals, protein or fiber in addition to being low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. The sodium content must be below 360 mg per serving for individual foods and 480 mg per serving for meal-type products.


    USFDA How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.

    USFDA A Key to Choosing Healthful Foods: Using the Nutrition Facts on the Food Label.

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