How to Read a Food Label

What Foods Have to Have Nutrition Labels?

Under Federal rules, nutrition labeling is required for most packaged foods. In addition, voluntary nutrition information is available for many raw foods e.g. the 20 most frequently eaten raw fruits, vegetables and fish each, under FDA’s voluntary point-of-purchase nutrition information program, and the 45 best-selling cuts of meat, under USDA’s program.

Nutrition Information Panel

Under the label’s Nutrition Facts panel, manufacturers are required to provide information on certain nutrients. The required nutrients were selected because they address today’s health concerns. The order in which they must appear reflects the priority of current dietary recommendations.

Food - food label basicThe mandatory (bold) and voluntary components and the order in which they must appear are:

  • Total calories
  • Calories from fat
  • Calories from saturated fat
  • Total fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Polyunsaturated fat
  • Monounsaturated fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Total carbohydrate
  • Dietary fiber
  • Soluble fiber
  • Insoluble fiber
  • Sugars
  • Sugar alcohol (for example, the sugar substitutes xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol)
  • Other carbohydrates (the difference between total carbohydrates and the sum of dietary fiber, sugars, and sugar alcohol if declared)
  • Protein
  • Vitamin A
  • Percent of vitamin A present as beta-carotene
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Other essential vitamins and minerals

Nutrition Panel Format

All nutrients must be declared as percentages of the Daily Values, which are label reference values. The amounts, in grams or milligrams, of macro-nutrients (such as fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates and protein) are still listed to the immediate right of these nutrients. But, for the first time, a column headed “% Daily Value” appears on the far right side.

Declaring nutrients as a percentage of the Daily Values is intended to prevent misinterpretations that arise with quantitative values. For example, a food with 140 milligrams (mg) of sodium could be mistaken for a high-sodium food because 140 mg is a relatively large number. In actuality, however, that amount represents less than 6 percent of the Daily Value for sodium, which is 2,400 mg.

On the other hand, a food with 5 g of saturated fat could be construed as being low in that nutrient. In fact, that food would provide one-fourth the total Daily Value because 20 g is the Daily Value for saturated fat.

Serving Size

This is the most critical section of the food label to examine, because often, even with items that would seem to be a single serving (that little bag of potato chips for example) is more than one serving.

The serving size remains the standard for reporting each food’s nutrient content and is a set amount recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as one that is commonly consumed by most people for that product. Serving sizes now are more uniform and reflect the amounts people actually eat. They also must be expressed in both common household and metric measures.

Nutritional information on labels is given on a per serving basis—not per container. This is very different from a portion, which is the amount that people actually end up eating in one sitting. Knowing how much you are actually eating, relative to the serving size listed, will help you determine how many calories and how much of the listed nutrients you are getting.

Servings Per Container

This is the total of the number of single servings in an entire package of food. Information reflected in the Nutrition Facts Panel is for a single serving. If you eat more than one serving or prepare the whole package, multiply the Nutrition Facts Panel figures by the number of servings you consume. Referring to the Nutrition Facts Panel example, the serving size listed is 1 cup, which provides 25 calories. If you were to actually eat 2 cups, then you would get 50 calories.

The FDA allows common household measures: cup, tablespoon, teaspoon, piece, slice, fraction (such as “1/4 pizza”), and common household containers used to package food products (such as a jar or tray). Ounces may be used, but only if a common household unit is not applicable and an appropriate visual unit is given e.g. 1 oz (28g/about 1/2 pickle).

Grams (g) and milliliters (ml) are the metric units that are used in serving size statements.


Ingredients shown on a product label are listed in order of predominance by weight. The ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last. If sugar is listed first, for example, that means that there is more sugar in the product than other ingredients.

Total Carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is a nutrient considered to be the body’s main source of energy (calories); Total Carbohydrate on a food label includes fiber and sugars (both naturally occurring and added).

Dietary Fiber. A non-digestible carbohydrate found in foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. It is a dietary component that most Americans need more of—along with vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.

Percent Daily Value (% DV).  Percentage of which a specific nutrient in a serving of a particular food contributes to the daily value—or need (100%) for that nutrient. The % DV can tell you whether a food product is a low, good, or excellent source of that particular nutrient. Low Source – 5% or less of nutrient; Good Source – 10%-19% of nutrient; Excellent Source – 20% or greater of nutrient. The % DV is also a good guide to use when comparing food choices based on the content of certain nutrients.

The Daily Values (DVs) are reference points for intakes determined by public health experts and are considered general guidelines based on a 2,000 calorie daily intake. If your calorie needs are higher, then the percent listed on the label would be lower, and conversely, if your calorie needs are lower, then the percent listed will actually be higher.

Protein. Another energy-providing nutrient for the body with many important functions, one of which being cell/body tissue growth and repair.

Sodium. This nutrient should be limited according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Other words for “salt” on an ingredient statement are: “sodium chloride”, “sodium caseinate”, “monosodium glutamate”, “trisodium phosphate”, “sodium ascorbate”, “sodium bicarbonate” and “sodium stearoyl lactylate”.

Sugar. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Some sugars are naturally occurring, while others are added. Be aware of other words for “sugar” that are often listed on an ingredient statement: sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice, fructose, glucose, honey and maltodextrin. These words indicate sugar has been added to the food product. Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars. Consider using Stevia as a sweetener. It is a natural ingredient derived from a plant and is 100 – 300 times sweeter than sugar and can be found in most health food stores.

Total fat, saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. These nutrients should be limited, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Saturated Fat. A fat associated with poor heart health, coming mainly from animal foods and certain oils; typically solid at room temperature.

Trans Fat. A fat negatively associated with poor heart health, formed during the hydrogenation process (when a softer or unsaturated fat is processed to become more firm or solid), but can be found naturally in some foods. Most trans fat in the diet comes from hydrogenated fats.

Cholesterol. A waxy, fat-like substance associated with poor heart health; produced naturally in the body and found in all foods of animal origin.

Other Words to Look For:

Sodium free. Product must contain less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Very low sodium.  Product must contain 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.

Low sodium. Product must contain 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.

Fat free. To make this claim, a product must contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

 Low fat. This type of product must contain 3 grams or less of fat per serving.

Low, Good, Excellent. These words on product packaging carry specific, legal meaning as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

  •  Low Source – 5% or less of nutrient
  •  Good Source – 10%-19% of nutrient
  •  Excellent Source – 20% or greater of nutrient