How to Properly Read a Food Label

LOOKING FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION?

Nutrition facts labels, commonly referred to as food labels, are required on all packaged foods. The labels provide the facts about foods and any dietary supplements contained in the products. Labels help with preventing false advertising while promoting food safety. Reading these labels and understanding the information on them is the key to making healthier dietary decisions.

Label Requirements

Packaged food products must contain certain information, as per the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Labels must contain product names, a list of ingredients and nutrition facts. The manufacturer name and address must also be included. Finally, the net amount of the content must be recorded on the label, listed by weight or size.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FDC&A) went even further by requiring that labels also reveal possible food allergens that may be in products. These allergens can find their ways into the products if factories packaged other products utilizing these ingredients. It can also come from proteins derived from the allergens.

The most common allergens are:

  • Crustaceans/shellfish (crab, shrimp, lobster, etc.)
  • Eggs
  • Fish (bass, cod, flounder, etc.)
  • Milk
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans
  • Tree nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts, etc.)
  • Wheat

The Nutrition Facts

Every label on food packaging must contain the Nutrition Facts. This section contains the serving amounts, the calories, the nutrients, the percent daily values and the foot note. Understanding what these categories mean and what to look for is necessary in reaching the right dietary goals.

Serving Sizes

The first item listed under Nutrition Facts is the serving amount. Depending on the product, it can be listed as a quantity, such as pieces or by measurement (cups, teaspoons, ounces, etc.). The size of a serving is followed by the number of servings in the package. It can be easy to think that a smaller-sized package is a single serving, but the label tells the real story.

Calories

Calories are listed by “amount per serving” and “calories from fat.” How many calories can be consumed in a day depends upon the consumer and his or her diet. The standard diet is 2,000 calories daily. Someone trying to lose weight will decrease his or her caloric intake, while someone trying to gain weight will increase it. Be sure to pay attention to calories from fat. Too many calories from trans-fat can cause unhealthy weight gain.

Nutrients

The nutrients listed contain both those that should be restricted and those that should not be restricted. Fats, cholesterol and sodium need to be restricted, especially saturated fats and trans-fats. Nutrients that are beneficial and should be increased include vitamins, calcium, iron, carbohydrates in the form of dietary fiber and proteins. Nutrients are listed with the amount contained within the package.

Percent Daily Value

The percent daily value column lists the percentage of each of the nutrients contained in the package as compared to the daily amount that should be consumed. The daily amount is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) based on a 2,000-calorie diet for a healthy adult. For nutrients like sodium, individuals should normally target less than 2,400 mg. Note that the RDA differs according to the age and dietary needs of a person. A 3-year-old child needs 15g of protein per day, as compared to a senior citizen, who needs approximately 53g of the same nutrient.

Footnote

The final part of the Nutrition Facts section is the footnote. It notes significant nutrients that need to be included in a healthy diet and how much of the RDA is contained in the product. A can of corn may list in the footnote, “Vitamin A: 0%, Vitamin C: 4%, Calcium: 0%, Iron: 0%.” The primary purpose of the RDA footnote is to make the consumer aware of key nutrients that may or may not be in the product.

The Ingredient List

The ingredients are listed on the label in descending order by how much is contained in the product. The first ingredient is the largest amount, so it’s important to look over the list carefully to understand what’s really in there.

The fact is that a lot of sugar is not good for anyone. Even if the product does not list sugar in the ingredients, it doesn’t mean the product is sugar-free. High-fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener and malt syrup all contain sugars. Any item listing fructose, syrups, sweeteners or glucose are forms of sugar. Sugar may not be listed as the first ingredient, but it still may be abundant. Keep in mind that manufacturers may use multiple sweeteners in their products. Each sweetener is listed as an individual item on the label, making it look like there is less sugar in the product. Always check the nutrients on the label to find out how much sugar is in it the item.