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.

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