Food Labels (Lesson 15)

Descriptive Terms

Prior to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, many descriptive terms used on labels were not regulated. Today, food products using descriptive terms on food labels must meet strict regulations. Understand that it isn't important or even possible to memorize all the definitions. It's only important to know that these terms have strict regulations. The list below will help you understand what the descriptive terms mean.


Nutrition labeling has been around since the 1970s. In the early 1990s, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revised the food label in major ways. (USDA regulates labels on meat and poultry, and the FDA regulates labeling on all other food products.) Starting in 1994, food manufacturers were required to use the Nutrition Facts label on their products.


Like many things you do - caring for your family, job responsibilities, preparing meals and taking care of your home – healthful eating is a balancing act. It takes skill to get it right.

Health experts agree that what we eat and how much we eat affects our health now and in the future. It is important to understand the links between diet and health and develop skills to consistently make informed food decisions.

There are three tools to help you do just that! These tools are:

1. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans - These guidelines are designed for professionals to help individuals ages 2 years and older eat a nutritious and healthful diet.

2. MyPlate - This is a food guide that uses five main food groups (fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy) to show us how much to eat each day to be healthy. We need to eat a variety of foods from each of the food groups.

3. The Nutrition Facts label - This is the third tool used to make healthful food choices. The Nutrition Facts label is found on food packages and shows the amount of calories per serving, servings per container, specific nutrients and the amount of each nutrient given in grams and percent daily value based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Web Sites to Visit and Other Assignments

Web Site Assignments

Explore these websites to learn more about the Nutrition Facts label:

Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label

Mayo Clinic Nutrition Labeling

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020

Other Assignments

On your next trip to the grocery store, compare the following foods:

  • Frozen green beans and canned green beans for sodium content
  • Skim milk, low-fat milk, reduced-fat milk and whole milk for fat and calcium content
  • Various breakfast cereals for fiber and iron content
  • Frozen dinners for nutrition, convenience and cost
  • Soft drinks versus 100 percent fruit juice for nutrition and cost
  • Chips versus whole-wheat crackers for nutrition and cost
  • Soft tub margarine, butter and shortening for Trans fat content

What You Will Learn

This lesson will help you to better understand the Nutrition Facts label and health claims on food packages. You will learn how to use them to make healthier choices at the supermarket.

What's on the Nutrition Facts Label

The Nutrition Facts label tells us a lot about a packaged food item. It doesn’t suggest what foods to eat, but it helps us make wise food choices. The food choices we make can benefit us now and in the future.

Let us take a look at a Nutrition Facts label. We'll start at the top and work our way down. You'll want to follow along on a food package you have in hand or on the label included here.

1. The first things you will see are servings per container and the serving size. This tells us how many servings you can expect to get out of the container or package based on the serving size. So in the example below, you will get four 1/2-cup servings in this container.

Nutrition Facts Label1PNG

A serving size is the amount people typically eat at one time. Note: This is not a recommendation for how much consumers should eat of this food! (Since serving sizes on the new food label reflects the amount of the food item people typically eat today, they may differ from the previous food label. Consumption of some foods have increased since the first food label appeared in the 1990’s.) Serving sizes have been standardized for most foods to make it easier for consumers to compare similar products, such as cereals, and to compare the serving size to how much they actually eat. Servings are given in common household measures (i.e., cups, slices, tablespoons, etc.) as well as in metric measures. For example, the serving size here is ½ cup or 120 milliliters.

2. In section 2 of the label, calories per serving is listed. Notice that the word “Calories” and the amount of calories (330) is in bold font. This is to make consumers mindful of how many calories they are consuming in one serving of the food item so they can make wise food choices.

Remember that the amount of calories and nutrient content are based on a single serving. A serving and a helping are not the same! So for this product, there are 330 calories in ½ cup serving. If you consume two servings or 1 cup, then you have to double the calories and all the nutrients.

Just for fun, check the serving size on your box of cereal. Next time you serve yourself a bowl, measure out one serving. Is this more or less than you normally eat?

Do You Know? Based on the food label here, answer the following questions:

  1. If you drank 1 cup of this beverage, how many calories would you have consumed?
  2. If you drank only ¼ cup of this beverage, how many calories would you have consumed?
  3. If you drank all four servings of this beverage, how many calories would you have consumed?

*See answers at the end of this section.

3. In this section, the nutrients required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are listed. These nutrients are those most important to the health of Americans today. There are some nutrients that we should strive to limit when we make food choices and others that we should try to get the recommended daily amounts.

There are five nutrients we should try to limit:

  • Saturated fat
  • Trans fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Added sugars

Why are these nutrients limited? Research shows that a diet high in saturated fat and Trans fat can increase the risk of heart disease and therefore, should be limited. Not all fats, however, are created equally. You may see monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats listed under “Total Fat.” These fats are actually heart-healthy, but keep in mind that all fats contain 9 calories per gram and contribute calories to your overall diet.

Cholesterol is listed for those who may need to monitor their cholesterol intake. Sodium, a component of salt, can increase blood pressure in some people and should be limited.

Added Sugars” is a new feature on the revised Nutrition Facts label. Added sugars include all types of sugars, including syrups and granulated sugar that have been added during processing. “Total Sugars” include sugars that naturally occur in the food item (like fruit and milk) and sugars that have been added during processing. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugars should be limited to 10 percent of total daily calories. Consuming too much added sugars can make it difficult to meet the important nutrient needs and still stay within calorie limits.

The five nutrients we should get more of include:

  • Dietary fiber
  • Vitamin D
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Potassium

Americans tend not to get enough of these nutrients. When comparing food items, it’s important to choose those foods that are higher in these nutrients.

4. Since the Nutrition Facts label tells us how much of each of these nutrients is in a single serving of the food, it is hard to know if that amount is a little or a lot. To make it easier to gauge, the Percent (%) Daily Value shows us how the food item fits into our overall diets.

The Percent Daily Value is a reference number based on the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), and tells adults how much each nutrient in one serving of food contributes to a daily diet. The Percent Daily Value is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. For some nutrients, your required Percent Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs. Cholesterol, sodium, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium do not change based on calorie needs.

The Percent Daily Value is the key to tell whether a nutrient is high or low in a food. Using the food label above, you see that the food item contains 75 milligrams of cholesterol and 85 milligrams of sodium. Would you know if it is high or low in cholesterol and sodium? The Percent Daily Value is the clue. It tells you that it has 25 percent of your daily value for cholesterol and 4 percent of your daily value for sodium. A neat trick you can use is to remember the 5 and 20 rule. If a food has 5 percent or less of a nutrient, it is considered low in that nutrient. If it has 20 percent or more, it's considered high.

For those nutrients we should limit, we should strive for a Percent Daily Value of less than 100 percent. Conversely, for the nutrients we should get more of, we should try to reach 100 percent of the Percent Daily Value.

5. In section 5, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium are required to be listed on the label. Other vitamins and minerals are allowed to be on the label as well but are not required. The four required nutrients are listed because Americans do not always get the recommended amounts. As mentioned above, we should strive to reach 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of each nutrient. On the previous food label, vitamins A and C were required to be listed but are now optional because deficiencies of these vitamins are rare today. The actual amount (in milligrams or micrograms) and the Percent Daily Value of each nutrient must also be listed.

6. The footnote at the bottom of the Nutrition Facts label defines the Percent Daily Value. It also tells consumers how much a nutrient in the serving size contributes to the recommended daily amount based on a 2000-calorie diet.

Ingredients List

The food package also contains the list of ingredients in the food item. Ingredient lists are required on labels of all foods with more than one ingredient. They are listed in order by weight, from most to least. If you have food allergies, the ingredient list can help you identify foods that you may need to avoid.

Other Labels You May See

You may come across dual-column labels on a food item like the one below. The two columns show the calorie and nutrient content per serving (1 cup) and the entire container (2 cups). You may see this type of label on food items that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings. For example, a pint of ice cream with 2 servings per container could be eaten at one sitting. The purpose of this type of labeling is to allow people to easily identify how many calories and nutrients they are getting if they eat or drink the entire package at one time.

Nutrition Facts Label Dual ColumnPNG


  1. 660 calories
  2. 165 calories
  3. 1,320 calories

Getting Started

Before starting this lesson, go to your pantry and pick up a few food items that have a Nutrition Facts label. If you have two similar products that you can compare, that would be great. You probably have two different kinds of cereal or maybe two kinds of soup. You get the idea. As you learn about each point on the label, see if you can find that information on one of your food products.

Label Changes

Nutrition labels are mandatory for most packaged foods and voluntary for many raw foods. The nutrition panel has been redesigned to reflect today's health concerns and make it easier to understand and use to make healthful food choices. The nutrition panel is called the Nutrition Facts.

On May 20, 2016, the FDA announced the new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to reflect new scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases, such as obesity and heart disease.

On January 1, 2020, manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual sales were required to switch to the new label. Manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales have until January 1, 2021 to comply. Manufacturers of most single-ingredient sugars, such as honey and maple syrup have until July 1, 2021 to make the changes.

Label Language

The government has set strict definitions for terms that can be used to describe a food's nutrient content. These are free, low, reduced, high, less, more, light, good source of, lean and extra lean. On the package, you will see words like low-fat, high fiber and no cholesterol.

Currently there are 17 health claims that are allowed to be used on food labels. They are based on sound research proving the relationship between a nutrient or food and a disease. These claims are regulated by the government and give important information about how diet affects health.

Just like the Nutrition Facts, nutrient content claims are defined for one serving. For example, that means that low– fat cheese has no more than three grams of fat per serving.

Nutrient Content Claim – Definition per Serving


Calorie free – less than 5 calories

Low calorie – 40 calories or less

Reduced or fewer calories – at least 25% fewer calories*

Light 50% fewer calories from fat, 30% lower calories overall*


Sugar free – less than 0.5 gram sugar

Reduced sugarat least 25% less sugars*

No added sugar – no sugars or sugar alcohols added during processing or packing, including ingredients that contain sugars such as fruit juices, applesauce or dried fruit


Fat freeless than 0.5 gram of fat

Low fat – 3 grams or less of fat per 100 grams

Reduced or less fat – at least 25% less fat than reference food*

Light50% less fat than reference food

Saturated Fat

Saturated fat free – less than 0.5 gram saturated fat

Low saturated fat1 gram or less saturated fat per serving and not more than 15% of calories from saturated fat

Reduced or Less saturated fat – at least 25 % less saturated fat*


Cholesterol free – less than 2 milligrams cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat

Low cholesterol20 milligrams or less cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat

Reduced or less cholesterolat least 25% less cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat*


Sodium freeless than 5 milligrams sodium

Very low sodium35 milligrams or less sodium

Low sodium 140 milligrams or less sodium

Reduced or less sodium – at least 25% less sodium*

Light in sodium – 50% or less sodium


High fiber – 5 grams or more

Good source of fiber – 2.5 grams to 4.9 grams

More or added fiber – at least 2.5 grams more fiber

Other Claims

High, rich in, excellent source of – 20% or more of Daily Value

Good source – provides 10% to 19% of Daily Value

More, enriched, fortified – added 10% or more of Daily Value

Lean** – Less than 10 grams fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol

Extra lean** – Less than 5 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol

* as compared with a standard serving size of the traditional food

** on meat, poultry, seafood and game meats

If you read carefully, you noticed that reduced means at least 25% less of something than the traditional food. For example, reduced sodium is 25% less sodium, reduced fat is 25% less fat, and reduced cholesterol is 25% less cholesterol than the traditional food. This one is easy to remember, but a 25% reduction doesn't mean it is low in sodium, fat, cholesterol, or whatever. You must read the label.

Health Claims

Health claims about the relationships between a nutrient or a food and the risk of a disease or health-related issue are now permitted on food labels. These claims are based on sound research. Claims are approved in the following areas:

Qualified Health Claims about Atopic Dermatitis Risk

100% Whey-Protein Partially Hydrolyzed Infant Formula and Reduced Risk of Atopic Dermatitis

Qualified Claims about Cancer Risk

Tomatoes and/or Tomato Sauce & Prostate, Ovarian, Gastric and Pancreatic Cancers

Calcium and Colon/Rectal Cancer & Calcium and Recurrent Colon/Rectal Polyps

Green Tea & Cancer

Selenium & Cancer

Antioxidant Vitamins & Cancer

Qualified Claims about Cardiovascular Disease Risk

Nuts & Heart Disease

Walnuts & Heart Disease

Omega-3 Fatty Acids & Coronary Heart Disease

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids from Olive Oil & Coronary Heart Disease

Unsaturated Fatty Acids from Canola Oil & Coronary Heart Disease

Corn Oil & Heart Disease

Possibly B vitamins & Vascular Disease

B Vitamins & Vascular Disease

Qualified Claims about Cognitive Function

Phosphatidylserine & Cognitive Dysfunction and Dementia

Qualified Claims about Diabetes

Chromium Picolinate & Diabetes

Qualified Claims about Hypertension
Calcium & Hypertension, Pregnancy-Induced Hypertension, and Preeclampsia

Qualified Claims about Neural Tube Birth Defects

0.8 mg Folic Acid & Neural Tube Birth Defects

As you can see, the claims center around fiber, fruits and vegetables, and specific plants and their substances. Therefore, a diet high in fruits, vegetables and dairy, such as the DASH diet plan, can improve health and well being and reduce chronic diseases such as hypertension.


Take a minute to brainstorm. List the 10 top reasons for reading a food label.

Take a look at one of the food packages you pulled from your pantry. Write down five things that the label tells you about the food inside.

Suppose you were choosing a breakfast cereal. What might make you buy one over the other? How would you decide which one had the nutrients you need? The Nutrition Facts panel on the label can help you compare the calories and nutrients of these cereals and help you make an informed choice.

Reading a food label helps you make food choices within the Food Guide recommendations. The food label is good reading for healthy eating. You can tell a lot about a food just by reading the label. This is one of the best sources of information available to you.

Remember, the Dietary Guidelines, a food guide, Nutrition Facts and DASH Eating Plan work together to help you and your family eat more healthfully. The Dietary Guidelines set up guidelines for American households to follow to maintain health. MyPlate shows the major food groups and serving amounts based on the Dietary Guidelines. The DASH Eating Plan is an alternate food guide following the Dietary Guidelines. These along with the Nutrition Facts label help you to make healthy food choices. Here's wishing you and your family healthy eating!

1/16/2020 8:42:14 PM
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