Reading food labels

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Food and drug administration (FDA) require food manufacturers to provide labels that spell out the nutritional content of different food products. Only fresh fruit and vegetables or seafood do not have these labels.

“Nutrition Facts” labels are a familiar feature on most packaged foods. If you have diabetes, you should become an expert at reading these labels. Knowing your Nutrition Facts not only allows you to figure out the amount of carbohydrates in foods. It also allows you to figure out the calories per serving of food items, a piece of information that is important for successfully reducing your calorie intake.

Key information that you’ll find on the “Nutrition Facts” label includes1:

Serving size. How much of the product is considered a single serving. The nutrient amounts on the rest of the label are all based on this single serving amount.
Servings per container. This tells you how many servings you get in a container. Some food products will have a single serving, such as single serving yogurts. Others will have multiple servings, such as a bag of potato chips or a frozen pizza.

Amount per serving. Under this section you’ll find information on total calories, calories from the three major calorie groups, fat, carbohydrates, and protein, and sodium content. Fats and carbohydrates are broken down into specific sources, such as saturated fat and cholesterol for fats and sugar and dietary fiber for carbohydrates.

Vitamins and minerals. At the bottom of the label, you’ll find the vitamin and mineral content of a single serving.

Daily values per serving. On the right-hand side of the label across from each of the specific nutrients, you’ll find the daily value for each item. This is the percentage of calories or vitamins/minerals you get in terms of each nutrient in a single serving based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. You daily target for calories may be different. After your work with your dietitian or nutritionist to determine your daily calorie target, he or she will help you figure out exactly how many calories from each nutrient group you’ll aim to get on a daily basis.

Making sense of the sections of a food label

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Take a look at the sample labels above and let’s practice reading the label and getting information that will help you with your diet needs.1

1. Serving size and servings per container. This section is important because it allows you to understand how all the numbers and values below relate to the contents of your container of food. All of the numbers and values for the mac and cheese product shown here are based on a single serving (1 cup or 228 grams). However, the package contains 2 cups or 2 servings. If you consume the entire contents of the package, you will need to multiply all the amounts by 2 to figure out how much you’re getting in terms of fat, carbohydrates, protein, and salt. For instance, if the total fat in a single serving of our sample is 12 grams or 18% of the total daily calories in a 2,000 calorie diet, a double serving (the entire package) will contain 24 grams of total fat, which is 2 times 18% or 36% of your total daily calories (for a 2,000 calorie diet).

2. Calories and calories from fat. Calories are a measure of how much energy is contained in food. The totals for calories and calories from fat are based on a single serving, so if you eat the whole package of mac and cheese, you’ll have to get out your calculator and multiply by 2. This section is important, because if you’re trying to lose weight, chances are you will be aiming to reduce how many calories you take in. Additionally, for a heart-healthy diet, you’ll be trying to keep the calories from fat below a certain amount per day. So, you can use both of these numbers to help you with your calorie targets.

You may ask: “How do I figure out if a meal is high in calories?” This will really depend on your target amount of calories per day. If you are aiming to consume 1,500 calories per day and you have 2 servings of mac and cheese, then you have taken in about one-third of your total for the day. A quick rule of thumb for amounts of calories per serving goes like this:

  • Low calorie serving: 40 calories
  • Moderate calorie serving: 100 calories
  • High calorie serving: 400 calories

3 and 4. Nutrient amounts. These sections show amounts in grams for different nutrients, including fats, carbohydrates, protein, and vitamins and minerals. (Note that total fat and total carbohydrates are overall amounts that include specific kinds of fats and carbohydrates.) The nutrients, including fat, cholesterol, and sodium, shown in yellow shading, tend to make up too much of our diets. These should be kept to a minimum. On the other hand, the nutrients shown in blue shading, including dietary fiber (you get this from fruit and vegetables and whole grains), as well as essential vitamins and minerals, tend to make up too little of our diets. Generally, you should aim to get more of these types of nutrients.

Learn more about the basics of healthy nutrition and how to eat well.

5. Nutrition Fact footnote information. The footnote tells you that the daily values shown above for a single serving of mac and cheese are based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. The sample label contains more general information from nutritionists that tells you how many calories of different nutrient groups you should aim to get for both a 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diet. Not all labels will have this extra information. Let’s take a closer look at what this information tells us. A single serving of mac and cheese contains 12 grams of total fat. This is 18% of the amount of total fat that you should take in daily. You should aim to take in less than 65 grams of total fat if you are eating a 2,000 calorie per day diet. If your diet has a higher daily calorie intake, such as 2,500 calories, the target amount of total fat will be slightly higher: 80 grams (you should aim to keep your total fat intake at or below this number). So, for the yellow shaded group of nutrients (fat, cholesterol, and sodium) that we tend to get too much of in our diets, the footnote nutritional information tells us a total daily amount we should stay under. For the blue shaded group of nutrients that we should get more of in our diets (there is no fiber in our sample mac and cheese product!), the footnote nutritional information indicates that we should get “at least” 25 grams per day.

6. Daily values for nutrient groups. The daily values listed on the right side of the label help you figure out (in the context of a 2,000 calorie per day diet) whether the amount of each nutrient in a single serving is high or low.

Note that trans fats, sugar, and protein do not have a daily values. The FDA did not have enough information to establish a daily value for trans fats or sugar and could make no recommendation for precisely how much to eat in a single day. However, since trans fats clearly contribute total fat consumption and sugar to carbohydrate consumption, it is important to keep intake of these nutrients at proper levels according the overall daily calorie target of your diet.

So, how much of the daily value of a nutrient should a single serving of a food provide? As a general rule of thumb for daily values, 5% or below is considered low and 20% or more is considered high. So, if we look at total fat content of our mac and cheese product, a single serving has 18% of the daily target for total fat, given a 2,000 calorie diet. This is a little under the 20% rule of thumb. However, if you eat the whole package of mac and cheese, you will be getting 36% of your daily target for total fat and that would be considered a lot for one meal.

Comparing labels

In addition to checking the Nutrition Facts for different packaged foods, you will want to look at the ingredient list, as well. As you gain experience reading food labels, you’ll have some important insights into how different ingredients change the nutritional content of foods. Let’s compare the labels for plain and fruit yogurt. The plain yogurt is made with nonfat milk and its total fat content reflects this. The fruit yogurt is made with reduced fat milk, so it has a slightly higher amount of total fat (3 grams). The fruit yogurt has a higher fiber content, which results from the inclusion of fruit. It also has a much higher carbohydrate content, a total of 15% of the daily value for carbohydrates (given a 2,000 calorie diet). The carbohydrate content of the fruit yogurt comes mostly from added sugars. The ingredient label tells us that these are mostly from the inclusion of high fructose corn syrup.

Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: May 2014.
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