Learn to Read Nutrition Facts Food Labels

What Is the Nutrition Facts Food Label?

Nutrition Facts Label
Shereen Jegtvig

Since 1994, the United States Food and Drug Administration has required nutrition information to be placed on most food packaging. These Nutrition Facts food labels are easy to find on the back, side or bottom of the packaging.

The black and white labels may be formatted vertically or horizontally (the vertical version is more common). Small packages may have an abbreviated version of the label.

This is a food label like the one that you would see on a can of condensed chicken noodle soup. It looks like a lot of information to understand all at once, so I'll break it down into different sections.

Serving Information

Nutrition Facts Labels - Serving Information
Nutrition Facts Labels - Serving Information. Shereen Jegtvig

The serving information is listed right at the top of the label -- there are two parts: the serving size and the number of servings. It's important to start with this section because everything else you read on the label is based on one serving.

The serving size tells you the size of each serving, and it can be either a number or a common measurement. 

This information can be misleading. If a package contains six cookies, but the serving size is two cookies, then the package contains three servings, not just one. So if you eat all six cookies, you're eating three full servings.

On the chicken noodle soup example above, a serving is one-half cup of the condensed soup as it comes in the can -- not after it has been mixed with water. So always look to see if the serving size should be measured or counted before the product is prepared or after.

Sometimes the number of servings may be easier to understand than serving size. On the chicken noodle soup label, the number of servings is given as about two and one-half. That means if you prepared the can of soup with any amount of water and ate the whole thing yourself, you've consumed two and one-half servings (and that doesn't include any crackers).

Calories, Fat, Carbohydrates and Protein Information

Nutrition Facts Labels - Calories, Fat, Carbohydrates and Protein Information
Nutrition Facts Labels - Calories, Fat, Carbohydrates and Protein Information. Shereen Jegtvig

This section of the label contains information about calories, fat content, amounts and types of carbohydrates, and the amount of protein in the product. The label shows the values in grams (g) or milligrams (mg) and the percentage of the daily value (the amount needed every day) for each of these nutrients.

These numbers are based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. It won't be exactly right for everybody, but it will give you an idea of how the food item will fit into your energy nutrient needs.

Notice that sodium information is located here rather than with the other minerals listed lower down. In the food label above, you can see that one serving of condensed chicken noodle soup has 37 percent of your daily value for sodium. If you eat the whole can of soup, you will get 92 percent of the recommended amount of sodium you should consume for the entire day.

This part of the label also contains information on fiber. You can see from this example, chicken noodle soup from a can doesn't contain much fiber.

Vitamins and Minerals

Nutrition Facts label
Nutrition Facts Labels - Vitamins and Minerals. Shereen Jegtvig

This part of the label shows the vitamin and mineral content of the product. The U.S. FDA requires information on calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C to be included here. And occasionally, the food manufacturers will add information about other vitamins such as niacin or folate if the product contains significant amounts.

On this chicken soup Nutrition Facts label, you can see there's some vitamin A and a bit of iron, but no vitamin C or calcium, so you'll have to get those nutrients from the rest of your diet. Remember if you eat the whole can, you'll have to multiply those percentages by the number of servings you just ate to get the correct total amounts.

The daily value for vitamins and minerals is listed as a percentage rather than a specific milligram or microgram amount. It's based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. So, if you eat less than 2,00 calories per day, then you'll get a larger percentage of your daily need met with one serving. If you eat more than 2,000 calories per day, each serving will provide a smaller percentage of your daily need.

Suggested Daily Requirements

Nutrition Facts Label
Nutrition Facts Labels - Suggested Daily Requirements. Shereen Jegtvig

The bottom portion of the label shows the suggested daily requirements for a few nutrients based on calorie intake. This information may not be present on smaller items because it's not crucial and it isn't specific to the product, but it's a useful reminder of your general needs. 

Now that you know what information is available on the Nutrition Facts labels make sure you use it to your advantage by choosing foods that fit into your healthful diet (take a look at my balanced meal plan for ideas). And be sure to watch out for any tricky food label claims on the front of the package.

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