How to Read a Label

written by Bettinita Harris

One of the best tools to help consumers balance their diet is the Nutrition Facts Label found on most packaged foods and beverages. But if people do not understand the labels, the labels are of little benefit.

Since the 1992 establishment of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, these labels have informed consumers about a food’s nutrient content, such as the amount of fat, sodium and sugar in the product.

For those on a special diet due to high blood pressure or high cholesterol, the labels make it easier to choose healthy foods. The labels also allow consumers to compare the nutritional value of similar food items to make informed purchasing decisions.

Making better food choices is a key element in the quest for fitness as Americans continue their decades-long battle of the bulge.Even though 2012 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that obesity among U.S. adults has leveled off, obesity remains a leading public health problem.

Nutrition labels provide the frame-work for a healthy diet by informing consumers about recommended serving size and servings per container, calories and calories from fat, total fat, total carbohydrates, Vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. A footnote that explains the amount of nutrients that should be consumed daily in a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet can be found on pretty much any nutritional label as well. These are the benchmarks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uses for the range of average values found in dietary intake surveys.

The label includes recommendations for six nutrients: total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate and dietary fiber.

Label Breakdown:Nutritional Label

Serving size, servings per container

The first item listed on the label is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Depending on the food, serving
size is measured in various ways, such as slices, pieces or cups. The equivalent serving size in metric units is listed in parentheses. The serving size information makes it easier to compare similar food items from different brand manufacturers. It is important to
note that nutritional information on labels is based on one serving size.

Calories and calories from fat

This portion states the number of calories and the number of calories from fat in one serving. For example, consider a box of crackers. The calorie count from one serving size of five crackers is 150, with 75 calories coming from fat. If two servings (10 crackers) are eaten, the calorie count would double, as would the nutrient numbers: 300 calories, 150 calories from fat. Knowing calorie consumption is important for people trying to lose, gain or maintain weight.

Total fat, saturated fat and trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium

People whose diets are high in fat, cholesterol and sodium face an increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. By using the information on food labels, consumers can limit their intake of these nutrients and choose foods low in sodium and replace unhealthy fats with the types of fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) found in fish and nuts.

Total carbohydrates

Dietary fiber and sugars are the two types of carbohydrates listed on the label. Diets high in fiber (fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains) promote healthy bowel function and can reduce the risk of heart disease.

The label listing for sugars does not contain a recommended Percent Daily Value figure, but people trying to lose weight or following specialized diets should limit foods with added sugars. The label information on sugars enables consumers to compare similar food items and choose based on their needs.

Vitamin A and C, calcium and iron

Including sufficient amounts of these nutrients promotes good health and reduces the risk of some chronic diseases. For example, getting enough calcium and Vitamin D (in addition to regular exercise) can help prevent osteoporosis, a disease of the bones in older adults (especially women) in which bones become porous and more prone to fracture.

Percent Daily Value (defined in label footnote)

This section of the label is a general guideline to help consumers evaluate nutrients in one serving of a food item based on the nutrients’ contribution to the overall daily diet suggestions. The Percent Daily Value shows whether a food is high or low in a particular nutrient: 5 percent or less is considered low, 20 percent or more is considered high. The Percent Daily Value figures are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. This portion of the label does not change because this is dietary advice for all consumers.

For example, consider the label from a package of graham cracker crumbs. It lists Sodium content as 140 mg. The Percent Daily Value is 6 percent. This means that one serving of graham cracker crumbs provides 6 percent of the sodium a person should consume in one day. Furthermore, the label footnote shows that a 2,000-calorie diet should include less than 2,400 mg of sodium; 140 mg is 6 percent of 2,400 mg.


The bottom section of the label is the listing of each ingredient in the food item, with the ingredient weighing the most listed first and followed by others in descending predominance. Manufacturers must use the common name for ingredients unless a regulation calls for a different term.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 added to food labels a listing of ingredients from one of eight foods or food groups classified as a “major food allergen”: milk, egg, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans.

In summary, the Nutrition Facts Label has become a key component of following a healthy lifestyle by enabling consumers to make educated decisions about food choices. While the labels have become such a customary part of food packaging that they are easy to overlook, spending a few minutes reading the label and comparing similar food items to make the best decision based on an individual’s needs is
well worth the time.


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